Looking back at the US Consumer Price Index (CPI) from 1775 to today, one realises that the obsession with inflation is quite a recent phenomenon. Inflation and what causes it, are not easy things to understand. As economist Herbert Stein, then a top adviser to US President Richard Nixon, called inflation “a hydra-headed monster” that “came in various forms—sometimes led by wages, sometimes by prices, by foods, by oil; sometimes it was domestic and sometimes imported.” However, in my view, there is one indicator that is the most useful in understanding inflation and that is: Wages. Despite the excessive money printing since the 2008, what we haven’t seen is an increase in wages. Inflation is not yet a serious headwind but it could be soon enough, as labour markets improve further. By labour market improvement, I do not mean just low unemployment rates. Instead of focusing on the unemployment rate, we should watch the rate at which workers are switching between jobs, as a precursor of increased inflation. When job-switching picks up, wages will pick up and so will inflation. My gut tells me that we will see a short burst of high inflation but over the medium-term, inflation is not a big risk.
The COVID-19 pandemic is fading fast and the vaccine is working better than many would have imagined. The UK and the US have done a great job and the European Union (EU) will inevitably follow suit as they get their vaccination program in order. In the sea of good news on the COVID-19 front, the news from India is not so positive, where infections continue to mount as do fatalities. One reason is the low level of vaccination. In India, less than 2% of the country’s population have been fully vaccinated and less than 8% have received the first dose. By comparison, over 42.7% of the population in the US and over 60% of the population in the UK have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Vaccination is the only way out of this crisis. New variants are bound to rise as the virus mutates. Drug companies are already working on booster jabs to tackle this eventuality. In the US, the administration of US President Joe Biden continues to announce more spending and the governments of Germany and Italy have also signalled they are willing to run large deficits this year, in order to support their economies. As the re-opening continues, equity markets have continued to rally. The S&P 500 Index’s (SPX) return for the year is already in double digits.
The US budget balance has been in deficit for the last two decades. It is a deficit that just keeps on growing. It now stands at -16.3% of US GDP, the largest since 1945, a time when the country was financing massive military operations to help end World War II. Granted that the current pandemic is a significant reason for this record deficit, but the trend line indicates things started going south well before, at the time of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-08, and it hasn’t reversed since. Continued stimulus and the “check is in the email” are now looking like regular promises for US households. The $1,400 check just received, follows the $600 check received in December and $1,200 early last year. This new round of stimulus will cost US taxpayers $1.9 trillion. The administration of US President Joseph Biden, is now crafting infrastructure spending plans that could cost as much as $3 trillion. All of it paid for through debt and a resulting increase in the deficit. The big question is therefore: Can the US wean itself off stimulus?
Thankfully, the major part of the pandemic seems to be behind us, as vaccinations globally have accelerated. We are moving ahead to the economic re-opening that everyone so keenly awaits – everyone except bond investors that is. In my view, rising bond yields are not currently of concern, and are more an indicator of things heading back to normal. The risk to equities will only come from an anticipated change in monetary or fiscal policies – be it the threat of increased taxation or relaxing the stimulus sooner than the market anticipates. It was very clever of US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell at a recent press conference, to warn the markets that the Fed “will not act on forecasts but will wait to see actual data.” That’s a sharp jab at the markets anticipating inflation that may or may not materialize over the short to medium term. If the “supply” can meet the “demand” created from the economy re-opening, then an inflation overshoot can be contained and indeed will be transitory. Expect earnings surprises to abound when the re-opening is in full throttle. Barring the volatility that inflation prints (or anticipation of such) will bring, the risk to equities remains to the upside.
Around this time last year, Covid-19 was threatening to run amok and that it did, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage globally, the deepest recessions since WWII and record job losses. Yet here we are,12 months later, thanks to the rapid success of virologists and vaccine science, we now have a choice of vaccines to inoculate ourselves against Covid-19. The 10-Year US Treasury that cratered and reached a new low of +0.5% is now back at +1.4% and threatening to head higher. Inflation, not disinflation, is suddenly the talk of the market.
Rising yields are grounds for anxiety, but not yet a cause for alarm. Rising bond yields are more an indicator of things heading back to normal – as the vaccination program achieves its intended outcome – stopping infection and achieving “herd immunity” against the Covid-19 virus. The equity risk premium (ERP) – how much stocks will outperform risk-free investments over the long term – is at a still very attractive level of over +3.1%. During the 1990s dotcom boom, at the time of the market crash, the ERP was negative. At that time, there was the alternative of keeping money in cash, as yields were a chunky +4-5%. No such alternative exists today, with the base rate standing at zero and central banks determined to keep it low for the next 12-24 months at least.
A hot housing market in the US is churning out job opportunities for blue-collar workers. Jobs in residential construction, package delivery and warehousing exceed pre-pandemic levels—and many companies are struggling to find enough workers to keep up with demand. The job gains largely result from the growing adoption of online shopping during the pandemic, which is likely to last permanently.
In a recent survey by the technology company Pitney Bowes, consumers said they are conducting close to 59% of their shopping online, and they expect to do 56% online after the pandemic ends. Before the coronavirus hit, the shopping online percentage stood at 39%. This is a signification change in consumer behaviour and one that will have a profound effect on productivity and GDP numbers in the medium and long term.
Covid-19 vaccination programs are accelerating globally and even rivals are teaming up for the common good. As we start a new decade the chatter is that, as we come out of Covid-19 lockdowns, we could find ourselves in a new Roaring ’20s. The parallels between the 1920s and today are clear. We are dealing with a virus now and economic activity has been badly hurt. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and economic malaise that came with it, preceded the original Roaring ’20s. There was pent-up demand for goods and services after the 1918 pandemic. There’s pent-up demand now and the consumer is strong.
Governments have been generous to top up income, and people have not been able to spend this money. During the 1920s, US Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge both followed easy fiscal policies, which eased the burden on the American people and US companies. This boosted spending and set the turbines of economic growth humming. President Donald Trump was equally determined (as is President Joe Biden) to boost spending, as is evidenced by the record US budget deficit. During the 1920s, the US transitioned from an agrarian to an industrialized nation. Now, along with the rest of the world, it is transitioning to an era of “digitisation.” The dawn of technological optimism can be seen everywhere. Therefore I continue to be risk positive.
My recommendation is to focus on large secular trends: Stick to the big wave and do not to get lost in the ripples which can be exciting and make you think that you have figured everything out, only to be swept away when the big wave arrives.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) hit the 30,000 mark in November for the first time in its history and it just had its best month since January 1987. The Index is up +60% from its March lows. By any yardstick, this is a V-shaped recovery in the equity market. Two doses of positivity are responsible for this – the positive news on the Covid-19 vaccine front and the prospect of a smooth transition at the White House. In the last few days, vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca have opened up the possibility that the economic disruption that started in March this year is nearing its end.
The discovery of a vaccine is only half the battle however. Getting the vaccine to market is just as important. The discovery of Penicillin in 1928, was a major medical breakthrough. However, it remained a lab curiosity for over a decade, due to lack of funding to continue the research or to manufacture Penicillin for medical use. It was not until 1941 that a successful public-private partnership between the US and UK governments as well as the pharmaceutical industry, led to the development of a way to mass-produce Penicillin. While the vaccine has come too late to save President Donald Trump’s second term in the White House, Operation Warp Speed – the Trump Administration’s vaccine effort to assist with the development and distribution of medical innovations to address Covid-19, has been a big success.
The Year 2020 is when monetary policy and fiscal policy merged. Decades of separation of church and state between an independent central bank and the Treasury, have just disappeared. Nothing underlines the manifestation of this better than the person expected to take charge at the US Treasury under President-elect Joe Biden – Janet Yellen, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve. The printing money playbook of the last few years is set to continue and get even bigger. Equities therefore will continue their upward trend in 2021.
In 1948, as the campaign kicked off, Harry S. Truman’s approval rating had fallen to 36%, and polls had him trailing his opponent Thomas E. Dewey by almost 15 points. On the night of the election, news organizations called the election for Dewey before all votes had been counted. The Chicago Daily Tribune was so sure Dewey would win, that the newspaper brushed off close early returns and printed 150,000 copies of its first edition with the (now) infamous headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” The morning brought confirmation. Truman had defied the predictions and won the election with 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.
So can President Donald Trump do a Truman and prove the pollsters wrong again as he did in 2016? Has he taken a leaf out President Truman’s 1948 Playbook?
The parallels to the 1948 US elections are striking and while Trump may not admit it, he has in fact taken a leaf out of the Truman playbook. Truman was serene while the pollsters, scribes, Democratic establishment and most of his campaign staff were certain he would meet a crushing defeat on Election Day. The same can be said of Trump and his 2020 campaign. Truman had an unshakable conviction that the issues he had been pushing will lead him to victory and same can be said of Trump. The Trafalgar Group – the only pollster to correctly show Trump with a lead in Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016 heading into the Election Day- now indicates that Trump is now ahead in Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Biden has a razor-thin lead in Wisconsin. So beware of pollsters and their sweeping predictions. Those who have written off Trump could be in for a rude awakening next Tuesday.
The curious thing is at least on recent evidence, financial markets do not seem to differentiate between a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. Perhaps it’s because the man in the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not in control of the economy as much as the person in the Eccles Building, at 20th Street and Constitution Avenue – the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. It’s all been one big monetary policy-driven market ever since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007. Under President Barrack Obama, the three best-performing sectors were Consumer Discretionary, Technology and Healthcare. Under Trump, the three best-performing sectors have been Technology, Consumer Discretionary, and Healthcare. Under Obama, the two worst-performing sectors were Financials followed by Energy. Under Trump, the worst performers were the same.
The number of Covid-19 cases is on the rise globally, but thankfully the rate of death is far lower than the levels we saw in March-April this year. I do not see the “second wave” getting worse to the point that we see a widespread economic lockdown. Lockdowns don’t make the problem go away. You have to unlock sooner or later and then the infection spread accelerates again as it has now. Every country that locked down without having a strategy for what came next, followed medieval superstition, not science. Well done to Sweden for actually having a strategy. Shutting down an economy is not the way to deal with Covid-19. Protecting the vulnerable, practising safe measures and letting the non-vulnerable (who vastly outnumber the vulnerable) get on with their lives is a much better way.
The sell-off in equities during the last two weeks now seems to be behind us. However, October will be a very volatile month as we get closer to the November 3 US elections. The overall trend for US equities is still to the upside. “Don’t Fight the Tape” is still in place from a long-term perspective. With the recent comments coming out of the US Fed indicating that they do not expect fiscal stimulus, for now, expect the Fed to issue more aggressive forward guidance that will keep flattening the yield curve. How many equity investors are willing to lock in their money for a +0.66% return for 10 years in US Treasury bonds? I suspect, not many and that can mean only one thing – with nowhere to go to generate income, investors will continue to take more risk and pile into equities.
Despite a record contraction in US GDP during the second quarter of 2020, the S&P 500 Index hit a new all-time high. So why this rally when the economy is in a downturn? Well, the stock market is not the economy. The US stock market is less service driven than the US economy and Covid-19 hit the services economy much harder than it hit manufacturing The US stock market is also more global, while the US economy, as you would suspect, is more local. Demand for US made goods, particularly technology, has continued to be strong despite the pandemic. The US stock market is also more investment driven while US economy is more consumption driven. Capital investment which increasingly is supported by higher and higher technology spend, has been hit far less than the hit to consumer spending. Finally, equity returns are driven by surprises relative to the expectations. Whether positive or negative, surprises have a big impact on equity returns. Covid-19 turned sentiment very negative. However, unprecedented government stimulus combined with optimism among investors about the world’s ability to manage the pandemic have been the positive surprises, that have lifted equity markets.
Now that the SPX has erased all its losses from the Covid-19 meltdown, where do we go from here?
In my view, the risk is still to the upside, albeit, technology stocks look overvalued and could be in for a short term reversal. As equity sector returns indicate, besides the technology and the communications sectors (and a few consumer discretionary stocks such as Amazon), most sectors are still barely positive for the year. Most importantly, fiscal stimulus is still in place and more is to follow as the CARES II deal takes shape in the US. The Federal Reserve still seems concerned with the plethora of unknowns that could stall, or in the worst case, exacerbate the downward pressure on growth. It will be a very long time before interest rate increases are discussed, let alone actually raised. At the last Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, most officials didn’t expect to raise interest rates at least through 2022.
Presidential transitions in the US have existed in one form or another since 1797, when George Washington handed over the Presidency to John Adams. As per tradition, every four (or eight years for two-term Presidents), the clock hits noon on January 20 and the nation learns whether the outgoing President has accepted the legitimacy of the incoming President. Most transitions have gone well except a few. So what of the next one on January 20, 2021?
Opinion polls have proven untrustworthy and postal ballots, a bone of contention in the best of times, are going to play a very important role in the November US elections. This election cycle is set to see a dramatic increase in mail-in votes on account of Covid-19, from a normal 4-5% of the electorate voting by mail to a massive 20% by one estimate. President Donald Trump is fiercely critical of postal balloting and sees it vulnerable to voter fraud. This lays the groundwork for questioning the result of the election, if the contest is close. A close electoral loss for Trump is a nightmare that nobody in Washington is prepared to deal with, as it could most certainly lead to a constitutional crisis. Yet, recent war-gaming by the Transition Integrity Project indicates that “in three out of four scenarios the US Republic will hit constitutional impasse by the conclusion in January 2021.” Only a decisive win for Joseph Biden will avert a constitutional crisis that may yet befall on the United States in January next year.
The S&P 500 index (SPX) is down only -1.4% year-to-date (YTD). The federal stimulus programs – unemployment payments to supplemental lost income from layoffs – are still in place and there’s talk of extending them beyond the July 31 deadline. There could also be a second stimulus check for individuals and families. Yet, given the rise in the number of new cases and lack of a cure so far, US authorities will practise caution, and therefore the chances of a speedier re-opening are unlikely. Therefore, the summer months will unlikely get us a new high in the SPX. There is room however for a rally in European equities which have fared badly this year and have seen less of a recovery compared to their US brethren. The UK and European Union (EU) nations have managed to beat back the virus and this allows their governments to speed up their economic re-openings. In particular, travel for summer vacations is resuming and the spending it brings, will help the overall economy and the bounce in economic sentiment.
By now, it must be abundantly clear to even the most ardent of Europhiles, that the level of debt, particularly that of Italy and Spain (and soon France) is unsustainable. This, especially in light of the ongoing Covid-19 induced global contraction of yet-unknown magnitude. If the Euro currency is to survive, then a European fiscal union has to take place sooner rather than later.
The Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion European Recovery initiative announced last week – financed by bonds issued by the European Union (EU), directly in its name and guaranteed by its revenues has got Europhiles calling it – Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment,” referencing Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury. Details remain sketchy and the proposal has already met with opposition from member nations. Additionally, the initiative does not make provisions for a permanent increase in the EU’s meagre annual budget of €165 billion or give the European Commission the ability to raise funds under its name. The Recovery Fund is therefore not a “Hamiltonian moment,” by any stretch of the imagination.
The S&P 500 index (SPX) reached the 3,000 levels this week and is now trading back above its 200-day moving average, for the first time since February 27. Very reassuringly, we are now seeing a broadening out of the rally and a move away from stocks benefiting from a surge in “work from home.” Financial and industrial stocks have rallied this week as have other “re-opening” economy stocks in the leisure, consumer and travel sectors. This means that the SPX could easily get to over 3,100. I would, however, keep an eye on the 3,080 level, where the SPX broke down in March. The technology sector has rallied massively of late and may not have the legs to keep carrying on, particularly as GDP growth will suffer and sentiment and price-earnings (P/E) multiple expansion can only carry stocks so far. Fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections are not going away and the long-lasting economic fallout from stay-at-home orders and escalating trade tensions with China will only weigh on equities over the summer months.
The difference in approach taken by Sweden and the UK to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak has again led to a debate about basing significant policy action on computer models alone. Whether you are drawn to the Swedish or the UK approach is not a matter of how many more deaths you are willing to accept. The fact is, herd immunity is where we are all heading. We have herd immunity against many diseases and this is achieved via a vaccine or through the controlled spread of a virus. Your choice of one approach over the other is unlikely to be entirely down to your assessment of the science. It’s more likely a complex combination of your mental and physical age, politics, your life experience, as well as your attitude to risk, amongst other factors. Both the Swedish and the UK teams are made up of highly accomplished scientists, doing their best to understand a pandemic. It is down to policymakers to take their advice and make a judgement call which should take into account more than forecasts from a computer model. The epidemiologists and their forecasting models have never been under wider public and social media scrutiny. A vigorous debate is to be had once this is over!
Tuesday marked a key milestone in the US equity market’s rally from its late March lows. It was the first time since February 21 that the S&P 500 (SPX) opened above its 50-day Moving Average (MA) and stayed there the entire trading day. The US monetary and fiscal policymakers’ efforts to preserve household incomes and stop the massive bankruptcies, of the sort which ensured that the crash of 1929 turned into the Great Depression of the 1930s, should be applauded. Beyond the US, we have also seen massive fiscal and monetary action too and all that money will keep flowing into the real economy as activity picks up. So those caught up in a valuation fetish and looking for the March lows to be re-tested, may be in for a massive disappointment. As you may have gathered by now, I feel even more positive about the equity markets today than I did last month.
With the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus raising the sceptre of a GDP contraction of between -10% and -20% in the US and Europe, the time for fiscal policy to take charge has well and truly arrived. The US Federal Reserve can always handle issues that affect the liquidity of the banking system. However, interest rate cuts when rates are already very low, don’t do much – particularly, when the problem is not the supply of credit but the demand for it, as both economic activity and consumption collapse. Boosting growth to a higher level can only be achieved when both monetary and fiscal policy work in tandem. The work done by the US Federal Reserve during the 2008 financial crisis may have just prevented a 1929-like Depression. The creation of many new facilities then, were also useful this time. The Fed was able to act quickly, supersize existing programs as well as create new ones. Fiscal authorities are now set to follow suit.
The bear case for equities, as outlined by some, is based on the view that the selling has been relentless and indiscriminate, that markets have given up 3 years of gains in just a month, and that no one has a clear idea of the true fundamental value, all whilst policymakers are flailing. These are also the very arguments for how the bull case for stocks starts. Fear is indeed palpable but it’s also the reason to start buying. Calling a bottom to the equity market is never an easy call to make. In an internal note to my colleagues last week, I indicated Friday March 20 as the market bottom when the low on the SPX was 2,295. The Fed and US fiscal authorities are stepping in as they have no other option. Of course, economic data will worsen further in the coming months, but I believe that most of this is already priced into the market.
Those concerned about the end of capitalism are again being emotive and are over-reacting. Moving the US Dollar off the gold standard, as then US President Richard Nixon did in 1973, changed the very face of capitalism. In a fiat monetary system, such as the one that most nations operate under today, the reference to government expenditure being “financed” by taxes or debt-issuance is redundant. A sovereign government is never revenue-constrained, because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency, and can print money at will. There is no gold standard to constrain it.
The US is in deep angst. It’s youth is in rebellion and they are marching to the tune of the “Pied Piper” from Vermont – Senator Bernie Sanders who is promising them a lot of free stuff. Sanders is the “Trump of the Democrats,” albeit with more pleasant manners. Detractors of Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist, can say “socialism doesn’t work” and “look at Venezuela” as much as they want, but Sanders’ core policy positions are now more mainstream in the US than ever. I am increasingly of the view that the US will have to experience a bout of socialism in the coming years to convince the young and “woke” voters, that everything in life is not free and it comes at a cost.
Over the last few days, global markets have been hit by fear of the so-called Coronavirus. I can understand the rush to safe haven assets such as Gold and government bonds, for those who are forced to buy such assets per their mandate. However, for others who choose to buy them, it’s worth making a mental note that government policy both in the US and Europe, explicitly seeks to have inflation of +2% i.e. in buying 10Y US Treasuries you are lending money to the US government at +1.31%, when it has told you explicitly that it is their stated goal to debase the value of money by +2% per year. I expect yields to go lower, but I am not a buyer of such bonds. I’d much rather make that return as a dividend on blue chip stocks (plus any upside from buybacks or earnings increases) and not have a risk of a rate rise or inflation fear to destroy capital on the bond exposure. I am not revising my target, and I still expect the S&P 500 to finish the year at 3,420.
The US-China Phase I trade deal requires China to increase its purchases of American goods and services by +100% over the next two years. That is a huge ask. Will China be able to meet the additional purchase targets and does it ultimately matter?
The answer to the first question – I don’t believe so and the answer to the second question – no, it doesn’t matter, at least not in the short term. The official US trade statistics for 2020 won’t be available until March 2021 i.e. US voters will be unable to evaluate the success or failure of US President Donald Trump’s China deal before they go to the polls in November. This deal allows Trump to talk about his deal-making prowess endlessly, without any way to challenge those claims.
Elsewhere, in less than ten days’ time the UK will leave the European Union (EU) and chart its path in a fast-changing world. One hopes it will be time for a Thatcher-era like revolution of the 1980s. Then, Britain broke the shackles of trade unionism and the belief that the state was the answer to every question. A post-Brexit UK should adopt economic and competition policies which are solely in the long term national interest. Not having the EU shackles will be a great help in achieving this.
Global equities had an excellent 2019 – the best in a decade. Just a few weeks into the new near and the S&P 500 Index is already topping some strategists’ year-end targets. There is still a lot of cynicism about this rally, however, bear in mind, just because the market has rallied doesn’t necessarily mean it has to now fall. The US economy has been mixed with more good news than bad. Housing has led the way, while manufacturing data remains weak and inflation pressures remain non-existent.
What a year it has been and what a difference a year makes! This time last year, equity markets were in free fall. As of today however, the S&P 500 Index is up +24% year-do-date, and the rally that started in Q1 2009 goes on and on. On the back of three interest rate cuts by the US Federal Reserve (Fed) starting in July this year, easing geopolitical risks, easing trade war risks, and the levelling off of the global manufacturing slowdown – the world’s stock markets have enjoyed a stellar year. With all the major central banks of the world once again printing money simultaneously, for the first time since 2008, there are good reasons to believe that rally will be sustained into next year. Given the Fed has moved back from pressing for higher interest rates, the US Dollar may have some downside risk in the very short term. However, I do not see that risk elevated.
Next week, the UK will see a rerun of the 2017 general election, albeit with one crucial change – The Conservatives are under the “new management” of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Two years on and the election seems to be offering voters the same choice as it offered in 2017 – a Tory party asking voters for a mandate to deliver Brexit, and a Labour leader who is doubling down on his “redistributive” policies. My prediction is…
Last week, the US Federal Reserve began buying short-term US Treasury debt at an initial pace of $60 billion a month, but Fed Chair Jerome Powell insisted it was not Quantitative Easing (QE). Whether this round of asset purchases is QE or not, is a moot point, and there is no point quibbling over this. Most importantly, these operations expand the Fed’s balance sheet. Over the last ten years, we have had QE1, QE2, QE3, Operation Twist, and now “Not QE”. The US government is running a trillion-dollar annual deficit, without any plans to reduce it, and the Fed will be forced to run more “Not QEs” to make sure these deficits are sustained. We are likely to see more QE sequels than Star Wars movies!
Last week, UK Prime minister Boris Johnson pulled off a remarkable political coup, proving his detractors wrong. The Withdrawal Agreement was reopened, the Irish Backstop was abolished and the regulatory alignment was watered down. Johnson’s passionate plea to colleagues to back his Brexit deal however fell on deaf ears in Parliament. Instead, an amendment requiring Johnson to seek a delay to allow for more scrutiny of the details of the deal was passed. Johnson had no choice but to send a letter to the European Union (EU) seeking to delay the UK’s departure from the bloc, for the third time.
The US Congress is weighing the impeachment of President Donald Trump, the Middle East looks unstable, Brexit remains unresolved, Germany is “in recession”, China’s GDP growth is at a 30 year low of +6% and the US and China are still mired in a trade war – yet last week, the S&P 500 index (SPX) climbed above the 3,000 level and is now within 2% of its all-time high. Well, look no further than the Fed for answers!
In further evidence of business morale plunging in Germany the factory activity in Germany shrank at the fastest pace in a decade. Furthermore, the weakness in Germany’s huge industrial sector is spilling over into the rest of the economy and impacting the service sector. The Ifo Institute forecasts 2019 economic growth in Germany at +0.5%. It now seems Germany may struggle to record any economic growth this year. The manufacturing downturn has deepened and job creation has stalled, amid greater pessimism for the future. Bottom line: Germany is in recession. However, I am not entirely bearish on the prospects of the Euro area in the short term and this is largely due to policies announced recently by the European Central Bank (ECB) and a hint that the Euro area may finally be moving (albeit very gradually) to a more counter-cyclical fiscal stance. Highly indebted Euro area nations, particularly Italy will benefit the most from the latest ECB largesse.
Despite this week’s violent US Money Market jitters, the US Federal Reserve (Fed) looks to have a clear plan for managing monetary policy and liquidity conditions. The Fed is now considering growing its holdings of US Treasurys for the first time in five years. During the month of September, the US-China trade narrative has continued to evolve, in a positive light, as President Donald Trump has toned down his abrasive tone and sought reconciliation. While the two sides are still far from a final deal, the chances of a compromise are growing. No further escalation in the trade spat should be seen as a short term deal and one that will help risk assets rally further.
As for Brexit, with the Supreme Court wading into the debate via its unanimous judgement this week, in my view, an immediate General Election is the only way forward in order for the electorate to get back into the Brexit debate – which has become the property of vested interests, professional well-funded lobbies and lawyers.
It’s no secret that President Donald Trump loves a weak US dollar and despite the interest rate cut on Wednesday by the US Federal Reserve, the US dollar didn’t weaken, but instead strengthened against the Euro. In my opinion the currency war may have just begun. One of the key promises Trump made to his voters was to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. According to Trump that involves two things – tariffs on imports coming into the US and keeping the US dollar weak to promote US exports. As we know, he is working on the first point already and is very likely to embark on the second one, despite his current denials. A currency war may not necessarily be a bad thing in the overall context of a world suffering from disinflation and low short term rates. It sure is better than a tariff war which leads to a reduction in trade and hence consumption and investments. A currency war can go catastrophically wrong when a country responds to another country’s devaluation of its currency, by imposing tariffs on exports from that country i.e. a currency war that leads to a full-fledged trade war and therefore a reduction in overall trade and economic activity.
Whether or not we will see another interest rate cut in the US later this year, monetary policy will remain on the easy path and the Fed will not raise rates anytime soon. This type of stimulus could eventually result in a bubble, but until the manufacturing and housing sectors stop weakening and inflation starts firming up, there is little to be worried about. If growth in China and the Eurozone trends up, helped by a stimulus in their respective economies, then the future is bright for corporate earnings.
Last week, in an extraordinary interview US President Donald Trump embarked on a vicious and personal attack on the US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. Trump ranted – “Here’s a guy – nobody ever heard of him before. And now, I made him, and he wants to show how tough he is, okay. Let him show how tough he is.” In recent times, Trump’s attack on the Fed has intensified. Meanwhile, Powell has the challenge of navigating three distinct challenges – setting a policy to prolong the 10-year-old economic expansion, explaining clearly why the Fed adopts the policy it does and ignoring the most consistent badgering of a Fed Chair by a US President in the recent memory. I do not expect the Fed to yield to political pressure and any interest rate cut will be in response to weakening economic conditions and not due to name-calling and bullying by Trump. While Trump started on the right track by promising to change the way the US is governed, I now believe it may have just been lip service and he will do whatever it takes to get himself re-elected.
The market is pricing in significantly lower interest rates to come and this should be seen as an early indication of a growth slowdown in the US economy. The Fed raised rates in 2018 by a full 100 basis points, yet the 10-year yield curve didn’t steepen, but flattened instead. The yield curve fell sharply in Q4 2018 and continues to fall. It reminds me of the 2005-06 rate hike cycle, when the Fed raised rates and kept raising, even as the yield curve was flattening fast and financial conditions were tightening. By the time the Fed started cutting rates, it was too late, the US economy had tipped into a recession. I expect the Fed has learned from its past mistakes, and it appears that the Fed is listening this time around. The Fed paused interest rate hikes in December last year, adapted its communication significantly to make it more dovish and is now getting ready to cut rates. This bodes well for risk assets and will help keep the recession shallow when it eventually comes.
President Donald Trump has diagnosed the China threat to US dominance correctly, but the remedies are too late. In my opinion, the US lost the “trade war” to China over a decade ago, as successive US Presidents – Clinton, Bush, Obama sold America short by giving in to corporate greed and abandoning the “nationalist” cause, which had served America so well for over two centuries. I am afraid the current generation of US leaders will find out that trade advantages are gained over years of meticulously planned policy-making and initiatives and not claimed or given away in a deal. The world is witnessing a new Cold War – a Technology war – and both China and the US are digging in for a long fight. At stake is technological and military superiority and the dominance of the global economic system. Of course, this version of the Cold War is very different from the last one fought between the US and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was just a military power and not the economic power that China is. Unlike China, the Soviet Union had little influence or trade links outside the socialist bloc of nations. I suspect the US-China trade war will escalate further.
Meanwhile at the US Federal Reserve (Fed), the big concern still seems to be that inflation expectations could become fixed at uncomfortably low levels, relative to the +2% target. The most recent data indicates that the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge – the core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) rose just +1.6% in March from a year earlier, down from +1.8% in January and +2% in December. In recent interviews two District Fed Presidents – James Bullard and Charles Evans, have intensified their call for a rate cut, should inflation remain lacklustre. What this means is that there will be no sustained sell-off in US equities.
As markets tumbled in December, the US Federal Reserve (Fed) realised the errors of its hawkish stance and decided to change tune. In January, the Fed confirmed a pause in interest rate hikes and an end to its balance sheet normalization this year. In March, Fed Chair Jerome Powell doubled down on the Fed’s dovish stance, signalling no hikes in 2019 and an end to the balance sheet reduction by September. As a result, the US equity market had its strongest first-quarter in more than two decades. When it comes to market recoveries from a correction, they don’t get much more V-shaped than the last seven months. I wouldn’t say that the Fed is a “hostage of the market” for I firmly believe that the Fed will raise rates if US inflation were to accelerate. However, a “Powell Put” – a reference to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and the Fed’s sensitivity to equity market selloffs – is firmly in place. South Korea’s economy unexpectedly contracted by -0.3% in the first quarter, the worst in a decade. It doesn’t bode well for other manufacturing and technology exporters such as Germany, Japan and Taiwan. It also means that the Fed will be under little pressure (if any) to raise interest rates this year.
Earlier this month, India kicked-off its general election, the results of which will be declared on May 23. Polls indicate that current India Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to return to power – albeit with a reduced majority – and may have to rely on like-minded allies to form a government. Regardless of the outcome, India will be a key market for investors to focus on for years to come. India is the fastest growing G-20 nation and, this year, is forecast to become the world’s fifth largest economy, surpassing the UK, and behind only the US, China, Japan and Germany. As China’s growth decelerates and labour costs rise, investors are beating a path to the doorstep of India to take part in its middle-class growth story. By the end of the 2020s the number of households active in India’s consumer economy will have grown to 312 million – that’s the size of Germany, France, UK, Italy and Spain all put together.
The Brexit negotiations are in limbo because UK Prime Minister Theresa May is not only absolutely convinced her deal is the right deal, but she is also convinced that the UK must not leave the European Union (EU) without a deal. On the other hand, the EU doesn’t want to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement and remove the backstop that would ensure the passage of the deal in the House of Commons. Additionally, the EU is not prepared to deal with the consequences of a UK exit from Europe, and is therefore only too happy to extend the article 50 deadline with the hope of getting the UK to change its mind and not leave. A third Meaningful Vote is in doubt. What is not in doubt in my mind, is that if Theresa May were to lose this vote, her fate would be sealed and she will be out of 10 Downing Street. A new leader and a general election could follow in quick succession as Brexit is delayed. In my opinion, the events of last week have raised the probability of a no deal, be it now or indeed after a general election. Recent polls indicate that public opinion against a delay to Brexit, and leaving with no deal if need be, is hardening.
Elsewhere, when investors hear the words, yield curve inversion, they automatically think, recession. This is because every recession in the US since 1962, nine in all, has been preceded by such an inversion. However, it is also worth remembering that not every inversion has been followed by a recession and that the lag between an inversion and an ensuing recession has lasted anywhere from 7 to 24 months, with an average of 14 months.
At a time when American prestige in the world is fading and China’s status is rising, and as the US and China work to find a mutually acceptable trade deal, it is difficult to imagine how unequal the two nations were in 1979 – the year of the big reforms in China – let alone in 1949 when then Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 1979 China’s GDP stood at $178bn and was 6% of US GDP. Today, China’s GDP is 63% of US GDP. For 22 years after the establishment of the PRC, there were no diplomatic relations between the US and China. It was not until April 1971, at the height of the Cold War, that there was the first public sign of warming of relations between Washington and Beijing in what came to be known as “Ping-Pong” diplomacy. When full diplomatic relations were eventually established in 1972, US-China trade stood at paltry $4.7 million, a rounding error when compared to today, and it now stands at $604 billion. The history of US-China relations is a fascinating read and China has gone from being a pariah state to the US in 1949 to its most important trading partner. So much so, that we are heading into a G-2 world where China and the US will make rules for the rest of the world to follow.
The New Year’s rally in equities continues after the US Federal Reserve (Fed) decided to pause its steady campaign of raising interest rates and shrinking its balance sheet. The S&P 500 Index is up over +18% since its December lows and is up +11.1% for the year. The Eurozone’s flagship Index, the EuroStoxx 50, is up +8.6% this year and is set to get a further boost as the European Central Bank (ECB), alarmed by slowdown in growth across the Eurozone, is about to embark on another round of ultra-cheap long-term loans to the banking system. While this new round of monetary policy is not a panacea for the Eurozone, it will boost European equities, particularly European bank stocks, which have floundered since May last year
The realisation is finally dawning on many in Europe that a No Deal Brexit would hit the EU very hard and is therefore an undesirable outcome. After hoping and wrongly presuming that the UK would cancel Brexit (a ludicrous thought that only highlights the gulf in understanding between the UK and the Continent), it is only now – after being convinced of the likelihood of collateral damage in its own country – that Germany is taking a more conciliatory approach. An extension of Article 50 is likely to give enough time to conclude a deal. I see a second referendum as the least likely outcome, with a general election as more likely. Across the pond, it is hard to see a resolution to the US Government shutdown other than President Donald Trump declaring an emergency that would let him reallocate funds that Congress has appropriated for military construction in order to build his wall. Of course, the Democrats will sue him, but at least the government would re-open and both sides could declare victory. US-China trade negotiations are entering a crucial stage and the likelihood of a Deal seems quite high. It is clear that trade wars are not easy to win and Trump is ready to fold, declare victory and focus on getting re-elected. He wouldn’t want China tariffs to be part of the 2020 campaign. China, on the other hand, would be relieved. Meanwhile in Europe, Germany is on the brink of a recession, as it is hit by weaker exports to China and elsewhere, as well as softer demand at home. The Eurozone is in a precarious position. Germany ought to embark on deficit spending and flex the rigid “growth and stability” pact to get the whole Eurozone out of its slow decline. Will they? Don’t hold your breath.
The slowdown in the housing sector, stresses in the leveraged loan market, and low oil prices are all pointing to a more “dovish” hike in interest rates by the US Federal Reserve on Wednesday. A part of me is tempted to say that assuming the Fed raises rates as expected, it is likely to be the last of this economic cycle. But then again, I look at the historically low level of unemployment and also believe that a deal between China and the US will be struck in time, and I am led to conclude that the Fed will still be able to raise interest rates next year. As for the politics of populism, Europe will be the hotbed in 2019. The slowdown in growth in the Eurozone – Q3 GDP growth down to +0.2% (December 2013 level) – doesn’t help one bit in dealing with it. The Gilets Jaunes has already humiliated French President Emmanuel Macron and forced him into an embarrassing climb down that will put a great strain on the French economy. I doubt Macron will recover from this debacle. I expect equities will rise post the Fed meeting this week as the dovish views finally get priced in. The US economy is set to grow at over +2% rate in 2019. This leaves a window for equities and other risk assets to show renewed strength given the recent sell-off. The US economy does not need a tax cut. In fact, a tax cut will be counterproductive and it may overheat the economy, get the Fed to step in and raise rates and cause a recession in 2019.
The “political declaration” that Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed with the European Union (EU) is very vague and has very few details about what the future relationship between the EU and the UK will be. The declaration doesn’t commit the EU to anything. It’s not a legal agreement, unlike the 525-page “Withdrawal agreement”‘ which includes guarantees that are legally binding including the £39 billion “divorce bill” the UK will pay the EU, albeit over several years. Besides, the biggest bone of contention in the agreement – the Irish backstop – still remains. I do not see it passing the UK Parliament in its current form and even if it does, I strongly believe the Tory party will split and a new election will see Labour come to power. There is many a Conservative party voter who would not vote for the Conservative party again, such is the level of opposition to May’s “Withdrawal agreement.” Now, of course, all this could be averted if the deal were amended and the Irish backstop is either removed or has a fixed period of validity. I expect US economic growth to slow down next year and therefore believe that the US Federal Reserve (Fed) will pause hiking interest rates. I expect the Fed to increase rates only twice next year. The G-20 summit will be held at the end of this month in Argentina. With US President Donald Trump pushing publicly for a trade deal with China and China loosening its Joint Venture requirements ahead of the meeting, signs are that both sides want to make progress on this issue at the summit. We could see a rally in risk assets if a deal comes to pass or even if the 25% tariffs that are to come into effect in January are postponed. By the end of Q2, the US would have entered the 2020 Presidential election cycle and Trump will do all he can to get re-elected. For that, he needs a healthy economy, a high reading on the S&P 500 Index, low unemployment, rising wages and oh yes, no recession.
Big electoral losses in the State legislature elections in the second and the fifth most populous states in Germany – Bavaria and Hessen – have dealt further blows to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ruling coalition. The move to the right (and in some cases far right) in recent elections in the US, UK, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Hungary and so on, indicates that, in the Western economies at least, the leftist parties have become rigid ideologues that no longer truly represent their people. Voters are therefore abandoning them and are willing to try new and untested political parties and personalities. This polarization is set to continue and, in Europe, the full effect of it will be felt in the upcoming European elections in May when the “populists” from across Europe take their seats in the European Parliament in Brussels in increased numbers. I believe Merkel is on borrowed time. Giving up the Chair of her party will increase the pressure on her to resign as Chancellor before her term ends in 2021. The Presidential election in Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy and the world’s fifth most-populous country, brought another populist to power. Jair Bolsonaro is quite a controversial figure with polarizing views on many a topic. But the fact that Brazil still voted him in says how tired Brazilians are of the last 13 years of the Workers’ Party (PT) rule, during which time corruption, debt and the deficit soared and Brazil fell into its worst recession in more than a century. The last three Presidents of the country have all been implicated in scandals and bribery. There was a feeling that if the PT returned to power, it would pick up where it left off and eventually turn Brazil into another Venezuela. Bolsonaro has pledged to clean up politics, crack down on crime, end Brazil’s flirtation with socialism, privatize and deregulate, rein in deficits, and open up the economy. If he delivers on even half his manifesto, Brazil would be the winner.
I can understand why the Brexiteers are opposed to the UK’s Chequers proposal, but I do not understand the European Union’s opposition to it. The Chequers deal would hamstring the UK, make it an EU rule-taker and keep the UK in the “single market.” There would be no realistic prospect of the UK reaching trade agreements with other nations, if the UK were not seen as having control of domestic rules or laws or being a credible negotiating partner. In my opinion, the EU, in pushing the envelope and rejecting the deal, has miscalculated. The Chequers deal is better for the EU than a “no-deal” or any other deal frankly. UK Prime Minister Teresa May will now do well to turn this rejection of her proposal into an opportunity and make a clean Brexit because that’s what Brexit means – the parting of ways and not a half-way house between the UK and the EU. As for the fantasy of a second referendum, unless the EU is willing to move to a multispeed EU with consent as the basis of an ever-closer union (i.e. Europe a la carte), there is no point in offering another referendum. It will result in the same outcome. Despite the antics and acrimony, I do see the UK and the EU concluding a deal, and it will likely be before year end. Now it is also possible that there might not be a big bargain deal to be had, in which case you will see a series of sector-by-sector deals to minimise disruption and some sectors may trade on Word Trade Organisation guidelines in the immediate aftermath of Brexit before concluding a final deal. The modern world has complex supply chains, and the UK and the EU particularly so, given their history and trade over the last 50 years. Getting a deal and minimising disruption is a priority both for the UK and the EU.
China and the US are talking again and that’s a good thing. With 2Q’18 US GDP growth of +4.2% and historically low unemployment levels, US President Donald Trump must know he has a window to renegotiate a trade deal with China from a position of strength. However, he mustn’t forget that the window will not remain open forever. The strong GDP growth in 2Q is attributable to a pick-up in trade activity in advance of the implementation of tariffs and increased consumption on the heels of the recent tax cut. Tax cuts are one-time adrenaline shots. A shot that Trump cannot administer or afford at will. Patriotism has its price and particularly in free, capitalist and profit-seeking economies such as the US and the UK where governments cannot coerce capital to act against their interest. Capitalists have no nationality or national interest and they tend to gravitate towards opportunities that offer the best risk-adjusted return. Unless of course you are a capitalist in Russia or China and then you do what the government tells you to. The US will pay its farmers $4.7 billion to offset losses from the tariffs imposed by China on agricultural imports from the US. A second wave of direct payments to farmers is likely to follow if tariffs persist. The farmers “cannot pay their bills with patriotism” and patriotism has its price. As Trump ratchets up the number of Chinese exports that he is willing to levy a tariff on, Americans will be faced with the question – at what price patriotism?
Although China may be the most recent example of mercantilism/protectionism, if one were to look at the timeline going back to the 18th Century, it is the US that is the most protectionist nation. The US became the dominant economic power in the early 20th Century by having high protective tariffs and this served as a model for later day mercantilists – Germany, other European nations and most recently, China. George Washington, the first President of the United States, not only supported the protection of infant US industries, but also set an example by “buying American.” The US Presidents that followed Washington carried on the protectionist policies as they built America in the 19th Century. The Republican Party dominated the US politics from the Civil War (1861-65) to the Great Depression (1929-39) and were overtly protectionist. America’s commitment to a “free market” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Post 1945, America achieved the status of an unrivalled superpower and found itself in total control of the markets with a ravaged Europe and Japan and an Asia too poor to offer any challenge to its hegemony. With no threat in sight and the vast world economy to sell goods and services to, America discovered a love for a “free market” purely out of self-interest. History is a great thing. One just has to look back far enough to cure one of all prejudices.
Society is a three-legged stool where each leg – economic, political and social – has to hold for the stool to stay upright. We often spend too much time and too many resources analysing and reporting on the economic and political legs, forgetting that the social leg is just as important, if not more so. Unaddressed, or wrongly addressed, social concerns have a tendency to creep up quietly and overwhelm societies – Brexit, Trump and the populist movement sweeping across Europe are good examples of this. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is finally in political trouble, not for economic mismanagement, but for her immigration policies. How fast the tide turns! When Merkel opened Germany’s borders to thousands of asylum seekers three summers ago, people in the affluent state of Bavaria rushed to help in such great numbers that authorities had to briefly turn back offers of clothing and food. It’s the same Bavaria now that has become Merkel’s Waterloo. The Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) have formed a common group in the German Bundestag since 1949. However, this 70-year partnership that has provided leadership to the Eurozone over last two decades, is now at a breaking point. For the European Union (EU) and the Eurozone, the only thing worse than a strong Germany is a weak Germany. With the exit of Merkel, the EU would be robbed of the only political leader who appears to have the stature and experience to hold the bloc together, as it stumbles from one crisis to the next.
Italy, the beating heart of the European Union (EU) has gone from being a cheerleader of the Euro to a vociferous opponent. The market has taken note of a potential crisis brewing in Italy as a new populist government takes office. The yields on the Italian sovereign bonds (BTP) are rising and if you are looking to insure against a default, you will have to pay more to protect yourself against default on Italian bonds than Russian government bonds. That’s because, at €2.3 trillion, Italian sovereign debt is 132% of Italy’s GDP. Italy’s problems are lack of growth, shrinking industrial production and the absence of independent monetary policy levers to handle these. Since the peak of the financial crisis in 2008, Italy has lost over 9% of its GDP and a quarter of its industrial production. The average annual rate of growth per head in Italy, since the adoption of the Euro in 1999, has been zero. Therefore, an Italian born in 1999 who just turned 18 and has become eligible to vote for the first time, has seen nothing but economic stagnation during his lifetime. Yet, Italy is no Greece. Italy’s GDP at €1.7 trillion is ten times that of Greece. Italy runs a current account surplus, a healthy savings rate, and is a net contributor to the EU budget. Italy can not only survive outside of the Euro, it can thrive. The European Central Bank is nearing the technical and political limits of Quantitative Easing, and the growth in the Eurozone is slowing down. If yields keep rising and growth doesn’t pick up, it is likely Italy will relapse into an insolvency spiral. If Rome is then asked to submit to austerity for a second time, it will likely take matters into its own hands. The Euro experiment, therefore, may be nearing its end.
In the 1930s, for over eight and half years, the US ran a trade surplus. Presumably, had Donald Trump been US President at the time, it would have made him a very happy man. Or maybe not. The 1930s will be remembered for the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. President Trump likes to blame “tariff barriers and unfair trade practices” for America’s trade deficit. However, the key issues that are prevalent in the US since the 1980s, are a high domestic consumption rate, a low savings rate and a low investment rate. America has a deficit because it consumes more than it produces and spends more than it earns, both privately and as a nation. The obsession that every country’s policymakers has with running a trade surplus ignores one basic reality: All governments cannot run a trade surplus. For every surplus, there has to be a deficit. For the sake of the US Dollar and the US itself, Trump should focus on the budget deficit and the national debt and not obsess excessively with the trade deficit. If the recent tax cuts fail to accelerate US growth, let alone reach +4% as Trump has suggested, the deficit will soar and make fiscal conditions worse. How long will foreign investors then continue to finance the US deficit? Every indebted economy has a day of reckoning. For the US the risk may not be immediate but it certainly is rising. It was debt that caused the UK and Sterling to lose their crown to the US and the Dollar. The enormous post-war balance of payments deficit was just too much for the UK. Debt had taken its toll.
From haggling over the price of tea on a quayside in Guangzhou in 1784 to trading in electronics and t-shirts today, over the course of more than two centuries, trade between the US and China has grown beyond imagination. This trade relationship is now the most significant in the global economy.
The world’s two largest economies account for 40% of global GDP, a quarter of all exported goods, and 30% of the world’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) outflows and inflows. Their fates are inextricably linked. In a way, they complement and need each other. The US cannot compete with China when it comes to manufacturing and China cannot compete with the US when it comes to product design or research and development capabilities.
The world’s most cost-competitive and largest electronics industry supply chain is in Shenzhen, China. China’s manufacturing capacity is so well honed and organised that it accounts for more than 25% of global manufacturing. It is my firm belief therefore that there will be no US-China trade war on the scale that may worry us all – and tariffs are just a negotiating tactic, albeit a necessary one. I see China opening itself up more to US exports. The US-China trade deficit will start to close meaningfully when the prosperity of China’s middle-class increases and they demand services that the US can export to China. Therefore, it is not just in the US and China’s, but also in world’s interest, that a China –US trade war is averted
Despite its high debt to GDP ratio, Italy’s main problem isn’t that it borrows too much – the issue is its non-existent growth. Italy, the third largest economy in the Eurozone hasn’t grown in any meaningful way for over two decades. Tinkering on the edges and paying lip service to reform mean that the outlook isn’t very bright for Italy. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) easy monetary policy over the last five years, may have pushed the recent GDP growth rate in Italy to +1.5%’ but what will happen when the ECB winds down its Quantitative Easing program and interest rates begin to rise? A re-run of the rising sovereign bond yield and questions about the viability of Italy’s economy are bound to resurface. In terms of equity markets, I don’t believe we have entered a new market regime, despite the recent market move. We are probably entering a transition phase and despite the market rhetoric, it is premature to conclude that the US Federal Reserve is behind the curve. The steady rally up we have seen over recent years may be behind us and what we will see going forward are moves both up and down i.e. welcome back to the two-way market. I still expect the S&P 500 Index to notch an +8-9% return this year – at least 200 points higher from the current level. What I am more concerned about is the rapidly deteriorating political equation in Germany. For the first time, the Far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has now surpassed the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in a national poll. How long before the AfD becomes the largest party in Germany? Inconceivable one might say, but not impossible. As Angela Merkel has moved leftward to occupy the space formerly taken up by the centre-left, the AfD has little competition for anything right of centre.
That was a very brief US Government shutdown this week. It lasted two days. Not that I am complaining. The agreement reached keeps the US Federal government funded through February 8, but it does little to resolve the contentious issues of immigration and government spending. The deal doesn’t preclude a similar shutdown next month. Markets care more about economic data than political “noise” and the data continues to be good. On the back of US tax reform, US growth is expected to accelerate and hopes have risen of wage increases. Global GDP growth is set to accelerate to over +3.5% from +3% in 2017. The global output gap is forecast to vanish in 2018 – the first time in a decade. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that, last year, 150 out of 176 countries managed to increase their exports. That is the highest share of nations on record and slightly higher than the peak reached in 2005.
So what could go wrong? The answer is: Trade wars. We got a taste of it on Monday when the US slapped steep tariffs on imports of solar panels and washing machines. President Donald Trump now seems ready to start implementing his “America First” trade policy. Be prepared to see more such trade-enforcements in the coming months. As top exporters, Europe, South Korea, Mexico, China, and Japan are all vulnerable to US trade tariffs and the “America first” policy. However, if trade wars become a global “thing,” with nations responding with tariffs and counter-tariffs of their own in a free for all, then the European Union (and Germany in particular), Korea and Mexico are most vulnerable, given their higher reliance on exports.
2017 was yet another superb year for the S&P 500 (SPX) index and the eighth full year of the current bull market run that began in March 2009. However, sluggish wage growth in the US has been a consistent theme of this economic cycle, confounding many, who believe a falling unemployment rate should herald higher pay for workers. Hopefully, the proposed cut in corporation tax in the US will drive investments and hence wages. If corporations however, use the tax cut to buy back stock and pay a dividend (as many have done so far), the impact of the cuts on GDP growth will not be so dramatic as consumption fails to take off. Unless the coal miner in West Virginia or the single mother in South Side Chicago has more to spend, businesses will have fewer reasons to invest. This equity market Bull Run will only come to an end when the US Federal Reserve starts raising interest rates aggressively, as was the case in 2006/07 and the yield curve inverts. The rule of thumb is that an inverted yield curve indicates a recession in about a year’s time. Yield curve inversions have preceded each of the last seven recessions. On Brexit, a breakthrough last Friday in the gruelling “divorce” talks between the UK and the European Union (EU) has paved the way for talks on trade. The agreement has significantly reduced the likelihood of a “no deal” scenario when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. Bitcoin was and still is a gamble. At this point all I would say is: A fool and his money are soon parted. A fool and his Bitcoin may take longer, but they will be parted.
Angela Merkel has loomed large on Germany and Europe for the last 15 years, yet, if Edmund Stoiber had not lost the 2002 German election to Gerhard Schroder by the thinnest of margins, the world wouldn’t know of Merkel the way it does now. Merkel’s pro-migrant policy in 2015 divided the centre-right in Germany and fuelled the rise of the far-right, which entered the national Parliament for the first time after September’s elections. While Germany is clearly going to feel the pain of an unstable political environment, following the collapse this week of coalition discussions, the bigger casualties are the Eurozone and the European Union (EU) who have come to rely on a steady and stable Germany for leadership and direction. Without Merkel it will be like the EU has lost its “good shepherd”, as it deals with growing populism in Eastern Europe and with Brexit. There is little appetite in Germany for “more Europe.” Merkel’s stint as the “leader of the free world” has been very short-lived. A wise leader knows when it’s time to go. Does Angela Merkel?
In the US, the Federal Reserve (Fed) released the minutes of its last meeting. These confirmed what the market already anticipates – an interest rate increase at its next meeting in December. All eyes, however, are on the US tax reform Bill which, if passed, could alter both the growth and the inflation outlooks and push the Fed to raise rates more aggressively than currently forecasted.
The all-important 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) kicked off last week in Beijing. In his bold 3 hour and 23 minute address, President Xi Jinping, outlined the party’s priorities for the next five years. If Beijing has its way, China is on a track to becoming an economic power the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. It’s not the Japan of the 1980s, it’s much larger. It’s no surprise then that even the US National Intelligence Council warns that the era of Pax Americana is “fast winding down.” To the Western eye the ascendant power of Beijing may seem a disruption to the status quo, but to students of world history and China, it is the restoration of a millennia-long equilibrium. China was the biggest economy in the world for most of the past 2,000 years, only to be overtaken by Europe in the 19th Century. The ramifications of this Chinese growth are significant. America will almost certainly come out second best if it doesn’t change tack – with Europe a long way behind.
Something remarkable happened two weeks ago. President Donald Trump, with the help of Democrats in the US Congress, managed to strike a deal on the US debt ceiling. An impasse on lifting the debt ceiling would have caused a disaster much worse than any hurricane. The agreement stunned seasoned political experts who, for years, had become accustomed to bitter partisanship and dysfunction in Washington. Trump showed once again that he does not belong to any party or ideology. He is in the White House to promote his legislative agenda and he is ready to make deals. If the establishment Republicans dislike this, then so be it. Trump likes to do deals. However, since this is politics, there will unlikely be a longterm Trump-Democrat lovefest. Democrats (and the media) will be back to hating Trump again quite soon. With the US debt ceiling suspended until mid-December, the major macro-risk for US equities has receded. As the hope for US tax reform is raised, it is hard to see what could stop the S&P500 Index (SPX) from continuing to climb till the end of the year. One main theme last week was better than expected inflation numbers in the US, the UK, China, and India.
The financial markets seem very complacent regarding the looming debt ceiling debate in the United States. I am however quite concerned and anticipate a period of sustained volatility during September and October, as the debate intensifies. If the “debt ceiling” were not raised in time, the government would run out of money to pay interest on the debt, write Social Security checks and make millions of other routine payments. I don’t see the US missing payments on Treasury debt, as that would be catastrophic, however, I suspect missing payments on social security would also be not taken kindly and could send financial markets into a tailspin. US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for passage of a “clean” debt ceiling bill without any conditions. You can be sure there are enough Democrats who want to extract concessions from the Trump administration and enough Republicans who want to cut federal spending – that this could thwart raising the ceiling in time. US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell likes to tout he has his troupes under control, but as we all know, he couldn’t get Trump’s Healthcare bill passed. Nothing about the performance of this Republican Congress to date offers any reason for optimism that it can now deal with this issue. Beware a sell-off in risk assets starting mid-September, if not before.
The US unemployment rate, currently at +4.3%, has now hit a 16-year low and shows that the labour markets are tightening. However, wage growth is still stuck at a low level. The US Federal Reserve (Fed) is still faced with a disinflation problem. The European Central Bank (ECB) is not ready to commit to any timescale on tapering or to provide any “forward guidance” on it. In fact, there appears to have been very little debate at the ECB meeting last week about how much more easing may or may not be needed going forward. Recently the media has been abuzz with reports that central bankers in the US, Canada, the Eurozone and the UK had signalled that the days of easy money are nearing an end. Sounds like wishful thinking to me! The Fed, the ECB and the Bank of England (BoE) have all pulled back, after sounding hawkish temporarily. The easing bias is set to continue and, therefore, there is little risk of an equity market sell-off anytime soon. If President Trump could do anything to ease the regulatory burden that the US economy carries, it would be a big boost to the GDP growth. Americans spent an eye-watering $1.9 trillion in 2016 just to comply with federal regulations. If it were a country, US regulation would be the world’s seventh-largest economy, ranking behind India and ahead of Italy. The regulatory tab of the US is nearly as large as the total pre-tax profits of all its corporations.
In the rescue of two of its troubled banks – Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, Italy decided to abandon the new European bail-in rules and instead “bail-out” these banks, at a cost to the Italian taxpayer of €17 billion. So much for new rules ensuring tax payers are never going to bail-out failing banks again! The European Union (EU) has once again failed to rein in bankrupt banks. Investors are watching and many are not impressed. The EU is no longer a bureaucracy, it has become an adhocracy that uses ad hoc rules which it makes up as it goes along. In the UK and the US, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and US Senator Bernie Sanders are suddenly the role models of the youth who are overcome with pangs of socialism. History suggests that every single truly socialist country has been an economic failure. Socialist nations make their people poorer, undermine democracy and endanger individual freedom. The poor in socialist countries have always done worse than they would have done under a capitalist economy. This lesson is sadly lost on the modern day youth in the western world. Frustration in the youth of today is understandable. People whose life hasn’t matched their expectations, often become alienated and angry. They were promised a better future and it looks anything but that.
Political passions are running high in Washington, and following the news that President Trump may have tried to coerce FBI director James Comey out of investigating Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, the word “impeachment” has entered the US political lexicon once again. But even with a handful of lawmakers eyeing this possibility, impeachment is still a longshot. Trump is still very popular within his voter base and most Republican Congressmen owe their seats to Trump’s victory. A massive shift in public opinion across the country would need to happen in order to pressure Republicans in Congress to take on President Trump. If there is no evidence that implicates Trump, I suspect that this will be the media’s last hurrah and Democrats will suffer most for fanning wild speculation. Those rooting to see the back of Trump should beware of the fantasy that the nation’s problems would be solved if only Trump could be made to disappear. Millions of Americans still have legitimate concerns about everyday economic life. Middle America has seen its jobs disappear to technological change, local factories have closed, and towns and cities have lost their prosperity. Not recognizing thisas the bigger problem that faces America, displays a rudimentary misunderstanding of those
who voted for Trump. It would be foolish to say that a major scandal involving the President would have no impact on financial markets, but it would likely be temporary. The ultimate driver of the S&P 500 and financial markets over the longterm, is economic growth in the US and abroad and both these measures are holding up quite well.
Imagine an election in the US without a Democratic or Republican candidate. That’s what we have in the runoff for the French Presidential election on May 7. Emmanuel Macron, the favourite to win, will find that winning is the easy part. Despite Macron’s success in the first round, the death of populism has been greatly exaggerated. 48% of the votes in the first round went to candidates hostile to the EU and globalization, causes that Macron champions. On the one hand, Macron is not beholden to the Left and so, theoretically, is free to make decisions that are unpopular with them. There is hope that he will act unselfishly and not cave in to leftist sentiment. On the other hand, successive Presidents and Prime Ministers in France have announced their intentions to change and reform the country, only to be successfully opposed by those who have something to lose. UK Prime Minister Theresa May surprised everyone last week by calling a snap general election for June. With her party 23 point ahead in the polls, May is expected to win this election in a canter. May has called the election because the country is coming together, but Westminster is not. The Tories have long been written off as English right-wingers, winning only token representation beyond the English borders. Polls indicate that all this is about to change and the Tories are on track to becoming the formal opposition to the SNP in Scotland and the biggest party in Wales.
Over the weekend, President Trump failed to repeal and replace The Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare. Obamacare, with a budget five times that of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), is a prickly issue, and one which will unlikely be solved to everyone’s satisfaction anytime soon. Now the Republicans plan to move on to tax reform and have promised quick action. However, tax reform could be just as complicated as healthcare reform. To start with, the only actual tax plan in existence, the Ryan-Brady Border Adjustment Tax, is extremely divisive within the Republican Party and doesn’t have sufficient support to pass the Senate. The economic recovery and the equity bull market, that started in March 2009 are celebrating their eighth anniversary this month. During this time the S&P 500 Index is up a staggering +246%. The economic expansion has been driven largely by record low-interest rates, the lowest since the 1800s in the US, driven by accommodative monetary policy. Going forward, given the low level of interest rates and expectations of rising inflation and bond yields, equities continue to offer better potential returns than bonds. On a valuation basis, Europe looks much more reasonably valued than the US. The European Stoxx 600 Index is still -7% below its 2007 peak, whereas the S&P500 Index is +48% above its 2007 peak.
Marine Le Pen has set out her stall for the French Presidential election in April. Her “Free France” manifesto begins with a pledge to restore full sovereign control over the currency, the economy, laws, and the territory. Le Pen is the insurgent candidate and the two-round ballot election is her biggest hurdle to the prize she covets – the Presidency. Nearly the whole of the French establishment on the Left and on the Right unquestionably accept the European Union (EU) as France’s historic destiny. The Front National’s denunciation of the EU, therefore, makes it the shibboleth of progressive values. So to the important question, can she win? I say, yes she can. Le Pen’s second-round polling support has been rising in recent months, causing the financial markets to step back and take notice. Europe’s periphery debt market has welcomed a new member – France! President Trump plans to send to Congress an outline for a comprehensive plan to overhaul the tax code for individuals and businesses by the end of this month . If we go by his campaign promises, small and medium size enterprises will likely get a reduction in taxes and regulatory burdens. This will be positive for US growth and in turn for the markets. I recommend that you remain long risk and overweight US equities. There is a low risk of a US recession over the next 12 months and even a modest pick up in nominal growth should push global earnings higher. I do not expect a rate rise at the March Federal Reserve meeting. Present conditions don’t warrant it. I, however, do believe that President Trump’s policies are going to be reflationary and that they will bring the Fed into action. We will see it raise rates at least three times this year, with all three hikes coming in the second half of 2017.
With Brexit and the election of President Trump, a new era is upon us. An era in which the certainties that have held true for decades are suddenly no longer valued. They are vulnerable. Globalization, immigration and liberalism which have defined the last three decades could get undone by protectionism, nationalism and populism. Yes, trade wars could be a reality and, yes, the US and China really could go to war in the next five years. No, their trade relationship will not prevent it. The UKGerman economic relationship didn’t prevent the slaughter at the Battle of the Somme a century ago. However, there is a silver lining. The current populist wave in the US and Europe is not about “pitchforks and soak the rich” and potentially has a positive side to it. Unlike past populist movements that arose from a desire to upend society, today’s movement is driven more by the longing to restore things to the way they were in the “good old days.” In other words, it may have reactionary elements, but it is not truly revolutionary. The grievances if handled correctly, will pave the way for a brighter future. The markets are probably right to think that Trump heralds a friendlier approach to business, in the form of lower taxes and less regulation. The S&P 500 Index (SPX) has been flat since midDecember, as investors take a wait and see approach to the policies of President Trump and their impact on assets.
On Wednesday, the US Federal Reserve raised the FederalFunds rate by +0.25%, yet didn’t alter its growth and inflation projections much. Like everyone, the Fed is in waitandsee mode as to the reflationary promises of the incoming Trump administration. If we look at the recent history of US recessions, on average, the US economy has experienced a recession every eight years. The current economic expansion, which started in June 2009, is now in its ominous eighth year. Almost everyone is of the view that Trump will have to deal with a recession or a financial crisis, at some stage during his term in office. The Fed knows that it needs to hike as much as it can in order to prepare for the next crisis. I would not be surprised if we saw another rate hike at the next meeting in January. As we look back at 2016, the big event was certainly Brexit. It signalled the rise of “populism,” which is now firmly entrenched in the UK, the US and across Europe. The postSecond World War principles of Social democracy (particularly in Europe) are having an existential moment and populist nationalism is in ascendance. Presidentelect Trump’s policies are largely a “basket of unknowables.” However, on the issue of trade, Trump has held a consistent view for a long time. At the core, Trump is a mercantilist, who believes trade deficits are bad for workers and the economy and that trade tariffs are one way to overcome them. My biggest fear for 2017 is that protectionism gains ground, first in the US, and then everywhere else in response. Much like the 1930’s, when the signing of the SmootHawley Act by another Republican President, Herbert Hoover, unleashed protectionism and the collapse of global trade. The wellbeing of the American people, and indeed the world, are predicated on the smooth flow of global trade and capital.
The last time a right-wing anti-establishment candidate made it to the White House was in 1829, when Andrew Jackson became the United States’ seventh President. The election of Donald Trump is repudiation of the liberal indifference to economic stagnation, income inequality and the diminishing economic prospects for American families, which have clouded over the US during the two terms of President Barack Obama. In Tuesday’s vote, Americans have refused to accept this status quo as the best the US can do. They longed for a leader who would not “manage the stagnation/decline” but fight to restore growth and “make America great again.” Voters rejected the progressive agendas of Hillary Clinton and Obama, much of which have stifled economic growth for the past eight years with over-regulation and legislative gridlock. If Trump is wise enough to surround himself with clever advisors and follow the example of President Ronald Reagan, who adopted the reform agenda that former Congressman Jack Kemp and other House Republicans had prepared, then don’t be surprised to see a +4% GDP growth in the US, late in 2017. The best market returns were generated under Republican Presidents working with a Republican controlled Congress. In that scenario, the S&P 500 Index gained +15.1% annually. Therefore, now that we have Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, US equities will be a good medium to long term play. However, one has to be patient, since “President” Trump, will not be in office until January 20, 2017 and the rally in equites will not be sustainable until GDP growth accelerates.
Italy is a sorry shadow of its former self. Italy’s economy has shrunk by approximately 12% since the financial crisis of 2007. Overall unemployment is 11.5% and youth unemployment stands at 36.5%, far above the Eurozone rate of 20.8%. Italy was not always in such bad shape. Between 195070, Italy was a powerhouse of economic growth and in 1987 its GDP passed that of the UK, an event termed by the Italian press as “Il Sorpasso” (Italian for “the overtaking”) and prompted wild celebrations in the streets of Rome. However, over the last two decades, Italy’s economy has essentially stagnated. Is the Euro to blame for Italy’s current economic mess? Only partly, in the sense that a weaker currency would certainly help Italy grow faster, create more jobs and provide the favourable backdrop needed to carry out unpopular reforms. The Euro may have made the Italian economic situation worse but it certainly isn’t the root cause. On the other hand, years of rampant corruption, lack of reform on the labour, judicial and economic fronts, most certainly are. What Italy needs is a “Yes” vote in this Sunday’s referendum. What it will likely get is a “No”, more upheaval and surprises that will threaten the Euro and the foundation of the European Union in the years ahead.
Hillary Clinton is now favourite to win the US election. If the US economy continues to grow at a pace of +1 to +2% per year (instead of the historical +3% to +4%), then the current economic and political problems will only worsen. Clinton will be acutely aware of this. A growth deficit should be a bigger worry than a budget deficit. Fiscal austerity has to give way to fiscal spending that induces growth. With 30y US Treasurys yielding 2.5%, borrowing to invest should be the mantra. The current economic expansion in the US, which began in June 2009, is now in its 88th month, which means that Trump or Clinton is likely to face a recession early in his or her administration. Equity Bull markets tend to have an expiration date as well: On average every 4.5 years. However, like the economic expansion, this Bull Run is also past its due date and is now seven years old. Does that mean one should sell? Not at all. Seasonally, we are entering the best period for equity markets. November to April is when equities tend to do well, before the May to October swoon. Since 1950, the S&P 500 Index has gained +7.1%, on average from November through April, versus +1.4% from May through October. Monetary accommodation is set to continue. These markets will not be broken by central banks. In many respects the central banks “own” these markets. If anything breaks the market, it will be the upheaval that only politics can cause – the US election, the Austrian election, and the Italian constitution referendum amongst others.
While bond yields have risen recently, to me, this looks like another episode of “taper tantrum,” where bond prices are recalibrating to prepare for a (perceived) less aggressive monetary policy. In the developed markets, low growth and subdued inflation outcome/expectations mean monetary accommodation is set to continue. Bond yields will remain low until such time as the global economy is back to its normal growth rate. If that takes another decade, then so be it. At least in the Eurozone and Japan, I see bond yields remaining low for the foreseeable future. These markets will not be broken by central banks. In many respects, the central banks “own” these markets. If anything breaks the market, it will be the upheaval that only politics can cause the US election, the Austrian election, and the Italian constitution referendum amongst others. One aspect of monetary policy accommodation which hasn’t worked, is the negative interest rates policy (NIRP). Lower rates have a depressing effect on household incomes, through reduced interest on savings and pensions. To my mind, NIRP will, in due course, be seen as a major policy error and the BOJ specifically, has painted itself into a corner. With respect to the FOMC meeting this week, I believe it will be a very close call and should we get an interest rate hike, it will not spook the market and financial stocks should rally post hike.
As nominal growth has failed to accelerate, the supremacy of monetary policy and further accommodation is being put into question. This has led to renewed calls for “helicopter money” or monetary finance as a serious policy prescription. The implementation of such a policy would be contentious and concerns about any unexpected consequences to broader public confidence have kept even Japan’s more adventurous policymakers away from it. The fear that governments could use monetary finance to spend irresponsibly has some justification, but governments can just as easily spend irresponsibly in normal times as well. In fact, they do and they have. Monetary finance is one way to repair balance sheets and bring back new growth. The other is systemic default. Pick your poison carefully. Policy makers also need to concentrate on reforms of regulations and tax rules that currently favour shorttermism over longterm capital stock building and higher productivity growth. There is a need for incentives to encourage real investment opportunities in both the private and public sectors. This will add to the tax base, reduce government expenditure and create more consumers. Despite the outperformance of traditional reflation plays Emerging Markets (EM), commodities and the modest uptick in the performance of financial stocks, I do not believe that reflation is afoot for investors to stay overweight equities. I continue to advise to sell equities in a rally. The letup of the USD rally is the key factor driving EM and commodity assets.
Modern banking was born in the Middle Ages in Florence, Italy. Florentine banks lent money to kings, emperors and popes. However, the current state of Italy’s banking system is a long way from its successful past and it is teetering on the brink of disaster. Italy’s banks hold bad debt to the tune of €360 billion, or 20% of the country’s GDP. So far, Italy’s efforts to reform its banks have been halfhearted and severely underfunded. Now PM Matteo Renzi wants to “bail out” the Italian banks using Italian taxpayer’s money. But the “bail out” falls foul of EU’s 2014 postcrisis “bailin” rules for bank rescues which require bank bondholders to take haircuts on bank losses before taxpayers do. Renzi can illafford to “bailin” pensioners holding their savings in Italian bank bonds. Therefore, a solution to the Italian banking crisis is a matter of political will, which in turn revolves around the German stance. I expect the austere Germans to “give into” Italian demands, if only to stave off a “systemic crisis” in the Eurozone. It’s too early to say how the EUUK Brexit negotiations will go. The EU’s single market aims to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services and people among the EU’s 28 member states and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far indicated that she is not willing to negotiate concessions with this principle. However, in diplomacy everything is up for negotiation if conditions demand. A long delay in agreeing the terms of a EUUK trade deal is going to be costly for both sides. I am hopeful good sense will prevail and a mutually acceptable solution will be found. I have now pushed out my US interest rate hike expectation from September to October and I still maintain that upside to equities is limited and one is better off buying on dips rather than chasing rallies.
The Brexit vote can be about many things but, at its heart, it’s a vote about the sovereignty of the national Parliament of the UK. Whilst those on the continent (particularly in peripheral Europe), may have come to trust Brussels more than they trust their national Parliaments, at least in the UK sovereignty is cherished and protected. In the eyes of a Brexiteer, the European Union (EU) undermines that sovereignty. I expect the UK to vote (albeit very reluctantly) to Remain in the EU. However, a vote by the UK to Remain should not be construed as an approval of “business as usual.” There was never a necessity for the EU to be anything more than a “free trade” alliance and one can’t deny that the EU’s reach has exceeded political necessity. Whether or not the UK leaves, change is coming. Globally, if loose monetary policy alone remains the saviour, then I am concerned that we may see the next recession in the US in the not so distant future, as job growth slows and drags down with it wages, capital investment and consumer spending. The Negative Interest Rate Policies (NIRP) being deployed by central banks, seem illjudged and a waste of valuable time. Negative interest rates are simply a distraction from what must be done to accelerate growth. The demand has to be injected directly into the economy and not intermediated through the financial markets.
Only a few weeks ago the market was weighing the probability of a recession risk in the US this year. Today, sentiment seems to have vaulted to the other extreme and is anticipating an interest rate rise in June, a move, that until recently, had been considered all but off the table. I am sorry that the market will be disappointed. The US Federal Reserve (Fed) may, at best, use its June meeting to telegraph that the probability of a rate rise is increasing. I suspect that even in July the Fed may sit on the fence and only raise rates in September. Let’s not forget that the elephant in the room is China and its currency, the Chinese Yuan (CNY). The USD/CNY peg creates a direct link between China and US monetary policy. Of course, some will argue – forget about the Chinese. That strategy however, was tested in August last year and January this year, with messy outcomes. The Fed has seen the trailer and I doubt they want to now sit through the full movie during an election year. There are less than four weeks to go until the Brexit vote. It’s very likely that the UK will vote to stay in the EU. However, referendums are not merely a consultative exercise but often have big long term implications. The 2014 Scottish referendum is a case in point. Although the majority voted to remain part of the Union, the Scottish National Party (SNP) emerged with unprecedented dominance over Scottish politics. The EU referendum will see a rise in Euroscepticism in the UK and certainly within the ruling Conservative party. The result is likely to be a UK that attempts to be more assertive in its dealings with the EU for years after a vote to stay
With no policy change expected and no press conference scheduled at Wednesday’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in the US, attention will be focused on the postmeeting statement. I expect the tone of the statement to be modestly upbeat as compared to the previous statement. With the March FOMC meeting, and the recent speech by US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen at the Economic Club of New York, the Fed has changed strategy. It is now more cautious and more aware of global conditions and, as a result, don’t believe it will change this approach again so quickly. In my view, it is a close call between one or two interest rate hikes this year, with the first hike not coming until July at the earliest. The US economy has plenty of steam to continue expanding. On top of this, if the Democrats win the White House (and it’s likely they will), we will undoubtedly see fiscal expansion and increased government spending funded by a higher deficit and higher taxes. The S&P500 Index (SPX) above 2100 will beget volatility, since it’s within touching distance of its alltime high. I would advise not to be deterred by volatility and instead build new long positions in favourite stocks or Indices when the opportunity presents itself. If a Brexit referendum were to be held today, the Remain camp would win. Whatever the result on June 23, the Brexiters are not going anywhere, unless the Remain camp wins by more than 20 points or more, and that is highly unlikely. Low interest rates are making life challenging for Germany’s savers and politicians. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, earlier this month launched an extraordinary attack, blaming ECB President Mario Draghi for the surprising success of the Eurosceptics in German state elections. Comments like these are very dangerous for the future of the Eurozone.
When the S&P 500 index (SPX) fell 10.5% by early February, it might have seemed a tall order to believe that we would be looking at a positive finish for the quarter. This is exactly what has happened as the central banks of the world have renewed their focus on monetary easing, with the biggest single impact coming from the US Federal Reserve. Last week, Fed Chair Janet Yellen provided a “Spring bounce,” by sounding more dovish than anticipated. Yellen’s comments appear to have ended the bull run in the USD and given a boost to risk assets. The Fed has undershot its inflation target for so long that it’s not unimaginable that it would be willing to accept some inflation overshoot (when there is one) to make up for the loss. This means that the interest rate risk is only to the downside. Inflationary pressures will likely remain elusive, and if they do come, then the Fed will most likely tolerate them rather than hike interest rates too quickly to quash them. Did last month’s G20 meeting in Shanghai come up with a secret currency accord? A “Shanghai Accord” to weaken the US dollar, help the global economy and give China room to rebalance its economy? If the second largest economy of the world, China, is going to make a transition to a more flexible FX regime, and the emerging markets of India and China are to be a pocket of strong GDP growth that the world desperately needs, then both a contingency plan and global coordination are key. Therefore, if there was a tacit deal at the G20 last month to keep the US dollar from strengthening further, it is certainly comforting. A weak USD will also be a help to Emerging Markets as a whole. The US economy has plenty of steam left in it and should continue its expansion for at least another eighteen months, if not longer. We were always unlikely to see a US recession this year, and the Fed’s decision to stay dovish has pushed this likelihood back further
Lower for longer is the new regime for oil, barring a geopolitical conflict that disrupts supply. Saudi policymakers perhaps remember the bitter lessons from the early 1980s, when Saudi Arabia cut its production to prop up prices in the face of rising supplies from nonOPEC producers. Saudi policymakers today are determined not to make the same mistake again. Whatever one may think of the whole Brexit issue, it is clearly a possibility and that begets uncertainty. There is no precedent of a nation leaving the European Union (EU). We therefore have no template for how EUUK economic relations might be post Brexit. The EU started as an economic area, breaking down trade barriers. Few leaders in the EU or the UK would want to go back to the time of trade barriers. It will be mutually destructive and therefore unlikely. The current US economic expansion is almost seven years old. This may seem long and we are therefore hearing murmurs of a looming recession. However, this expansion is the worst ever in terms of per annum (p.a.) GDP growth. During 191030, when the US experienced one of its worst depressions, Real GDP grew at a +2.6% p.a. pace. During 200915, US real GDP has grown at a paltry+ 2.1% p.a., largely due to the absence of any meaningful fiscal response. In the past, fiscal stimulus has been an important component of a recovery post a recession. This time around, austerity has been the buzzword.
We have just witnessed a period of intense market volatility. This time around, its effect is compounded by equity markets finding it hard to break off the link to plunging oil prices. In 2008, overleveraged banks and overleveraged households, combined with feckless supervision and regulation led to the market crash and the great recession which followed. Today, banks are healthier, households have greatly deleveraged and there are no real signs of a systemic bubble or malcontent on the scale of the 2008 mortgagebacked securities (MBS) crisis. If there is one thing which is of concern to me, it’s the lack of liquidity, as regulations have forced banks to move out of various businesses and placed restrictions on the use of their balance sheets. The developed world has a growth problem, a productivity problem, a disinflation (if not deflation) problem and a middle class income problem. As I wrote in my December newsletter, the fiscal response from governments to address these is missing and monetary policy is near exhaustion. This will lead to market volatility but, to be clear, this is not 2008 all over again.
There is evidence to suggest that the “middle class” has been massively squeezed over the last few decades, with more middle income families dropping into the lower income set and with less of the national aggregate income accruing to the middle class. This shrinking middle class has a vast impact on consumption and ultimately on economic growth, corporate profitability and inflation. When middle income families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, the entire economy is dragged down from top to bottom. In Middle America, Middle England, Middle France, and just about everywhere there is disappointment with the state of things and the free market economy. If left unaddressed, this could prove destabilising. Perhaps a little “redistribution of wealth” might improve the quality and quantity of economic growth—and reduce the demand for more aggressive state interventions (or even dare I say a revolution) later. So what will 2016 be like? In short, it will be more of the same: Low growth, low inflation and low asset price increases. The Fed may have raised rates and projected four additional +0.25% rate increases next year, but in my view, they will be lucky to pull off two increases. Disinflation (if not deflation) is the bigger fear. Viewing the current global economic malaise as cyclical, is a mistake, as there are powerful structural forces at work.
If the US Federal Reserve wants to meet its target inflation rate, it will have to ensure there is no “slack” remaining in the economy. The unemployment rate is still falling and that would indicate to me, there remains more slack in the US economy. Besides, if the Fed were merely waiting for it to be satisfied with job creation before raising rates, then it would have raised rates by now. However, normalisation of interest rates looms and the “new normal” will be quite different to the old normal. The crisis may be over and the US economy resuscitated, but it is permanently in a different place until such time as we see a fiscal response to address structural needs. An interest rate rise should not be feared. Rising interest rates can be the harbinger of a growing economy; an economy restored to its health. Economic expansion underpins corporate earnings growth, which is one of the most important drivers of longterm stock returns. The temporary selloff in equities when a rate rise cycle starts, has often proven to be a buying opportunity, as subsequent equity market performance has been generally positive
The European Central Bank’s ultra-dovish comments last week came as a bit of a surprise. Yet, the Euro’s appreciation of over 10% from its March lows is a big burden for the Eurozone‘s exporters to carry (particularly Italian and German), at a time when China is slowing down and world trade is contracting. As inflation remains moribund and “negative rates” become mainstream, sooner or later the US Federal Reserve (Fed) is likely to go down this path as well. What if negative deposit rates don’t bring back growth and inflation? Will central banks send cheques in the post directly to the people? Strangely enough a “cheque in the post” policy may do more to bring back growth and inflation than anything done so far by the central banks. Therefore, monetary policy is going to remain accommodative for quite some time, and in such a case equities will remain bid due to the lack of a substitute asset class with a better risk-reward tradeoff. It’s likely we will see a new high on the S&P 500 Index (SPX) before snow arrives. As for next year, one argument is that the SPX has never been up seven years in a row. This is true, but neither have we seen every major central bank easing at the same time, taking rates to zero and buying assets.
The US Federal Reserve estimates the “natural” rate of unemployment stands between 4.9% and 5.2%.The current rate of US unemployment is 5.1%. Monetary theory therefore dictates that interest rates must be raised. However, the Fed is in no rush to do this and forecasts the unemployment rate for 2016 to drop below this “natural” rate. It is therefore quite clear that monetary policy will be governed by concerns about financial stability and not by fears of inflation; as has been the case for the past few decades. Fed Chair Janet Yellen is truly biased in favour of “lower for longer”. I find it hard to believe interest rates will go up this year. My guess is you will see the first rate rise in the US in Q1’16. Additional Renminbi (RMB) devaluation is coming. However, crucially, as the last few weeks have shown, the People’s Bank of China has the capacity to keep the RMB stable. The Chinese government aims to stabilise GDP growth at “around +7%” by carefully increasing fiscal support via infrastructure investment. There is room given its relatively small share of overall fixed asset investment of 17.5% compared to the historic share of approximately 25%. Around 15% of China’s population are rural migrants living for at least six months in urban areas. By gradually being recognised as urban residents, they will become more likely to buy a property, send their children to school and become part of the Chinese urban consumption economy. Urbanisation and the growth of the middle class with spending power are ultimately the key to China’s transition to a consumption-driven economy. China’s fifth Plenum starts in two weeks time. Decisions made and political agreements forged there, should remove a key obstacle to business and government investment. I expect China’s data to reflect a positive turnaround by the end of this year and to firm up further in Q1’16.
When the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges opened for business in December 1990, there were eight listed stocks with a combined market capitalization of USD 500m. By 2015, the two bourses had 2,800 listed companies with a total market cap of over USD 10 trillion. Once purely a socialist command economy, China, the Middle Kingdom, is now partially socialist and partially capitalist. China represents 15% of world GDP and outweighs every country in the world except the United States. Therefore, what happens in China matters. Yet, it’s worth remembering – Chinese equity markets are not the Chinese economy. Unlike in the Western world, where listed companies represent a large proportion of GDP, the free-float value of the Chinese markets is only about one third of GDP, compared with more than 100% in the US and the UK. Besides, less than 15% of Chinese household financial assets are invested in the stock market. US interest rates remaining at zero, at the margin, are now a net negative for the economy. The sooner we get the first rate hike this cycle, the sooner it would remove the uncertainty that a 25bp rise in short rates would spell doom for financial markets. I can’t help but think that the real problem in the stock market is not now. It is for later, when inflation fears abound and the Fed starts hiking aggressively.
A North-South ideological divide in Europe is now out in the open. In one camp, the pro-austerity Northern Europe, made up of Germany and its allies, (Finland, Netherlands and Austria); and in the other, the profligate Southern Europe made up of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. A creditor North and a debtor South: an intra-EU colonialism of sorts. The much-vaunted “European solidarity” is but a myth and the mutual interests are not moderating but reinforcing each other in polarised directions. I have long believed that Greece would stay in the Eurozone and my belief has always been predicated on the view that Germany would do whatever was needed and would bear the “cost” to preserve the Euro. Events over the last few weeks have made me question my view. The German position on Greece and its hard-nosed negotiation tactics surprised many. This crisis has exposed a fault line too: France and Germany do not share the same vision of Europe. Notwithstanding the fact that Greece secured a third bailout, I have now come to the conclusion that, on balance, the likelihood of Grexit is now higher than Greece actually staying in the Euro. A third bailout is by no means a carte blanche and there are many strings attached that could trip up Greece. Besides, a third bailout deal won’t prevent Greece from plunging into a deep recession this year and perhaps next.
For those who think Greece cannot be reformed, Grexit is an easy solution to propose, but not one without consequences for the Eurozone. It is right to say that Grexit is not a problem in the short term (indeed Greece is only 2% of the Eurozone’s economy), but it’s the medium term implications that worry Germany, the biggest beneficiary of the creation of the European Monetary Union (EMU). If a Grexit does happen, it will change the nature of the EMU forever and make the Euro unstable. EMU will not be a monetary union anymore but will become a fixed rate system like the Bretton Woods. The Bretton Woods system collapsed as it was a fixed rate system, and it came under increasing pressure in the late 1960s and early 1970s as policies pursued by the United States diverged from policies preferred by other member countries. An erosion of the EMU will be a bad outcome for Germany. Of course Germany will not do a deal at any price, but the cost right now is not too high to pay in exchange for guaranteeing the stability of the EMU. Therefore, I continue to believe there will be a deal. Greece, in turn, will be subject to severe reform, for its own good. Athens is finally accepting that raising revenue and cutting spending is its only route to survival.
If Greece couldn’t manage the €750 million payment in May without raiding the reserve account at the IMF, it seems likely that they will struggle to make the even larger payments in June. No European help is forthcoming in the meantime. Therefore, either Greece agrees a deal and gets EU aid, or it defaults on its obligations come June. Even if Greece were to approve a deal, it is difficult to predict what becomes of the country in six month time. Would Greece reform and find itself on a path to renewed growth or would it sink further laboring under stringent measures and eventually decide to exit the Eurozone. The US recovery that began in Q3 2009 has seen US GDP expand at rate, well below that of previous recoveries. A slow recovery can be knocked off its perch very easily and the US Federal Reserve will be very cautious on signaling monetary tightening. The Q1 GDP print in Eurozone was at an encouraging +1.6% quarter-on-quarter, with stellar performances from France and Spain. In what is becoming a habit, last week China’s People’s Bank of China cut benchmark one-year interest rates once again and more measures to liberalise rates were announced. Equities are still a buy. If the Euro continues to appreciate, then moving from Eurozone overweight to equal weight will be required. Japan may take a breather, but there is more to come.
Greece could be nearing its own “Lehman moment.” Progress in negotiations with its creditors has been slow around such issues as pension and labour market reforms, the VAT increase, the privatization program as well as the 2015 primary budget surplus. For Greece, covering the primary budget target to make the current repayment schedule meaningful, will become increasingly difficult from mid-May onward. Greece is running on empty and the current level of Greek Credit Default Spreads indicates a 90% probability of Greece defaulting on its debt within a year. However, a political consensus to effectively eject Greece from the Euro is yet to form. On-going Quantitative Easing by the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan as well as the reluctance of the US Federal Reserve to raise interest rates too soon, has meant that the cyclical momentum for developed market equities is still in place. The Eurozone has seen a good run of better than expected economic data these past weeks and there is a strong likelihood that the Q1 GDP report could register annualized growth of +2-3%. As for Emerging Markets, a repeat of “taper tantrum” is generally viewed as unlikely, given that the path of a US rate rise (when it comes), will be slow and one of gradual increases. The UK election looks like being the tightest general election for decades. With all the party manifestos published and TV debates completed, opinion polls suggest none of the parties will win the upcoming election. The two biggest parties— the Conservative party and the Labour party— are neck-and-neck in opinion polls, yet both are far from securing an overall majority. Prime Minister David Cameron recently said he would not seek a third term. If forecasts are to be believed, he will be lucky to serve a second one. Based on the current projections, an arrangement between Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party is the most likely combination – adding 280 labour seats to the 50 seats of the Scottish Nationalists, which produces a House of Commons majority. Will it be Prime Minister Ed Miliband and Deputy Prime Minister Alex Salmond? Scary thought.
The dovish US Federal Reserve (Fed) has spread its wings, but it’s not looking for flight.The year 2014 was when the Fed stopped providing stimulus as it wound up its Quantitative Easing (QE) program, and 2015 will be the year when the Fed raises interest rates. I continue to expect a September lift off in rates. Dropping the word “patient” from its policy statement is bearish only in action and not in intent. US GDP is looking weak in Q1, retail sales are floundering and core inflation was up only marginally in January. Low oil prices and a strong US Dollar are both deflationary and core inflation is anticipated to fall further in the coming months. China is facing a stiff challenge to its growth. Chinese exports collapsed in the wake of the global financial crisis seven years ago and since then economic momentum has continued to slip. It reminds me of what a Chinese policymaker told me recently – when China faces its biggest challenges to growth, you will see some of the biggest and most improbable reforms. Reform of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) will be a major theme of Chinese policy this year. The case for Eurozone equities remains strong and this is also evidenced by the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index for Eurozone (CESIEUR) which has bounced from a – 50 reading in September 2014, to +40 today, and it outperforms the US index. Accelerated USD appreciation will hurt US earnings; and I would position a portfolio overweight European equities and underweight US equities.
The Eurogroup ministers meetings concerning Greece have proven inconclusive and more talks are to be held this week. At these meetings, the biggest disagreement has been over whether Greece should request an extension to its existing bailout program, which runs out at the end of this month. Greece is opposed to the extension yet the creditors believe extending the program is the best way to keep Greece from defaulting until a more comprehensive deal has been worked out. Over the last few days, the risk of Greece exiting the Euro has increased and is now arguably higher than it has been since 2012. Despite the posturing, protracted negotiations and rising risk, I still believe that a deal will be struck. It is hard to believe that Greece would refuse some funding from creditors in exchange for some structural reforms that the government intends to deliver on anyway. If you think Greece is a macro risk then Ukraine is the epicentre of manifold macro risk, given the involvement of Russia and hawkish comments emanating from the US. Seasoned US diplomats and foreign policy experts are getting vocal about arming Ukraine. France and Germany are, clearly and very sensibly, opposed to such assistance. There is little doubt that arming Ukraine would be a bigger catastrophe than the “eastward expansion of NATO” has already proven to be. Therefore, it was heartening to read that after 16 hours of overnight negotiations last week, the leaders of Germany and France had brokered a renewed peace deal to end the conflict in Ukraine. The macro data in the US is looking better by the day, particularly on the jobs front. However, the forward-looking guidance on earnings looks weak. The US equity market, as a whole, is unlikely to register big gains immediately and looks to be suffering from fatigue after a six year Bull Run. Therefore, I believe that sector rotation and stock picking offer the better return potential until such time as the path and quantum of interest rate rises in the US are fully assimilated. Long term worries for Europe around productivity and growth remain but short-term improvements in news flow, a cyclical upside as well as relative undervaluation of European stocks, all point to Europe as a more rewarding overweight position than the US. If you start from a low base, even small improvements can mean big relative improvements, and this is what we are seeing and will see more of in Europe.
By pegging its currency to a fixed EUR/CHF rate in 2011, Switzerland became an adjunct member of the Eurozone. This was the case until last Thursday, when it suddenly decided to cut loose. With Switzerland, we now have an insight into some of the risks that might emerge should a strong nation i.e. a budget surplus nation (Germany) leave the Eurozone. What we also saw last week, was a major western central bank going back on its pledge; a pledge it had reiterated to hold only a week before. It should serve as a reminder to all investors that unconventional policies will not last forever and cannot be taken for granted. At the heart of the Greek crisis is “debt sustainability.” This means that if the cost to service the debt becomes higher than the primary budget surplus, Greece will never be able to reduce its debt and will head towards a sovereign default. Greece has received €252bn in bailout money since 2010. However, astoundingly, 90% of this amount has gone to service debt and interest payments to creditors, many of whom are in the core Eurozone countries. Only 10% of the bailout money has gone into public spending. The Eurozone economy has weakened considerably and due to political wrangling, the European Central Bank’s (ECB) response so far has been more words than actions. The ECB is behind the curve. Fortunately, as inflation expectations have worsened, the consensus on the Council has grown. Even Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann seems to have shifted his focus from opposing a Quantitative Easing (QE) program, to influencing its design and implementation. The ECB Governing Council meets this Thursday, and I expect the meeting to result in the Council announcing a QE program to purchase Euro sovereign bonds. European stocks could rally significantly post the QE announcement. An ECB QE is not priced into European stocks.
The US economy added 321,000 non-farm jobs in November and 2014 is on course to be the best year for hiring since the 1990s. The oilmen of North Dakota and Texas have been hard at work fracking. In a surprise move, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the guardian and keeper of oil prices has walked away, leaving the “goal” unmanned and oil bears are scoring goal after goal. I see Brent oil prices bottoming out near $60 per barrel. Last week we learned that the European Central Bank (ECB) now “intends” and no longer “expects” to expand the balance sheet to its 2012 level. We also learned that the ECB could launch a new stimulus package without Council “unanimity.” While falling oil prices are a bane for oil producers and sellers, they are a boon for oil consumers and oil importers – principally in Japan and the Emerging Markets (EM). US dollar strength remains a massive obstacle to crude stabilizing, therefore low crude oil prices will continue to be a tailwind for world growth. I see a volatile Q1 2015 for the market, with Greece being the spanner in the ECB works, and a strong US dollar causing EM disquiet. However, low energy prices combined with continued improvement in the world’s biggest economy (the US), will see the year end on a very positive tone. 2015 will be another year of growth and higher equity prices.
If Mr. Market were anxious about withdrawal symptoms after the end of the US Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing (QE) program, it needn’t have worried. The Bank of Japan (BoJ), in an almost perfectly synchronized move, followed with a JPY10 trillion increase (or about 2% of Japan’s GDP) of its annual target for expansion of the money supply. In Europe last week, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), did a good job dissipating the confusion around the ECB’s willingness to do more for the economy. He reiterated that the ECB was in a high state of preparedness to provide further stimulus, if required to do so. He also added that, contrary to speculation, the Governing Council was “unanimously” (he used the word “unanimous” five times during the press conference) behind the goal of expanding the balance sheet. The US mid-term elections saw Republicans seize control of the Senate from the Democrats. This result has arguably reduced President Barrack Obama to a “lame duck.” His policies have been repudiated, and it’s now up to him if he also gets “plucked.” Should Obama choose to negotiate and broker a deal with the Republicans (rather than use executive orders to govern), many things could be achieved and this will be positive for the US economy as well as the US equity market. All is not lost with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress in the US. The last time this happened was in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, when the S&P 500 Index gained +25% during the ensuing 12 months.
From the European Central Bank (ECB) announcement last week, the market was left with the impression that the ECB Governing council has had a rethink and wants to see the impact of the existing policy initiatives before undertaking any fresh intervention. This however doesn’t change my view that the ECB will eventually pull the trigger on sovereign debt Quantitative Easing (QE) sometime next year. In the absence of more supportive news from central banks, it is easy to see how we might enter a liquidity vacuum over next two weeks, until the US Federal Reserve meets on October 29. This is the period of anxiety for equity investors. However, given all the bearishness during the last few days, markets were left confounded this week as to whether the minutes released by the Fed were actually from its meeting in September. The minutes were more dovish than the statements and comments of three weeks ago. In the present circumstances, being bearish or bullish comes down to basically one argument. Given the debt dislocation, if governments have to choose between inflation and deflation, which would they choose? If you vote for deflation, then you should be a Bear and a buyer of bonds. If on the other hand, you think inflation will be tolerated (and perhaps encouraged), then you should be a buyer of nominal assets – equities, real estate and commodities. The current disinflationary spell may threaten to bring on deflation but deflation is unlikely to be tolerated by the G7 central banks and governments. On a medium to long term basis, I am firmly in the inflation camp and therefore a buyer of nominal assets.
Last week, the European Central Bank (ECB) sent a strong and resolute message to fight dis-inflation by cutting its main lending rate, the deposit rate as well as pre-announcing the purchase of asset-backed securities. This could imply a potential expansion of €1 trillion in the ECB balance sheet, which could provide a boost to the outlook in the Eurozone for the next few months. ECB President Mario Draghi has once again bought time, and both European equities and bonds have responded positively. For much of the year, markets have been ignoring the referendum vote in Scotland, but not anymore! On Sunday, the complacency was broken, when the UK woke up to the shock news that the Yes campaign was now marginally ahead in the polls for the first time. A Yes vote in Scotland may have repercussions not just for the UK, but further afield as well. It could provide a catalyst to other discontented regions in continental Europe. The August selloff in the equity markets was short-lived and the month ended with a new record high. Recent data in the US has surprised mostly to the upside. An improving geo-political picture in the Ukraine, accelerating US growth and the unveiling of a stimulus program in Europe, all keep me positive regarding equities. I would not rule out a short period of market weakness around the US Federal Reserve meeting later this month. However, any sell-off would be a buying opportunity. The drivers for positive movement in the equity markets are central banks and seasonality, which in my view, would see the risk asset rally to the end of the year.
The message that the “US Federal Reserve is behind the curve” is resonating with some investors, who fear 1970’s like inflation is making a comeback. I personally believe that inflationary outlook is benign and will likely stay as such. The high inflation witnessed in the 1970’s was underpinned by three key factors – GDP growth averaged 4-5%, the unemployment rate was as low as 3.5% and, most crucially, the labour force was highly unionized. In a unionized labour force, wage increases are easily met and indeed passed on by the producer to the consumer, in the form of higher prices at the till. Over the past fifty years, the power of unions has been greatly reduced in the US. Italy is in a triple-dip recession due to lack of reforms. Lack of reforms scare off new investors, as well as stop existing investors from spending. Italy’s “significantly low” level of private investment is a direct consequence of the absence of reforms and the lack of clear government policy and is not due to the cost of capital. The ECB has intensified preparatory work related to outright purchases of Asset-Backed Securities (ABS). The ABS purchase rhetoric from the ECB raises the likelihood of it actually happening. In my view, the risk light on equities is still green but with some flashes of amber. I remain bullish on equities until at least the September Fed meeting and will then reassess. The comments from this meeting will help me decide if the light goes from amber back to green or from amber to red.
Last week saw one of the strongest US jobs data reports since this recovery started in 2009. However, the unemployment rate of 6.1% (now only marginally off the 20 and 60 year average unemployment rate of 6.0%), masks a very soft labour market. The continued growth of part time jobs reflects the structural challenges and changes to the US economy. The equity rally has continued unabated and there’s still time to participate in the rally. The Federal Reserve views the totality of the labour market and not simply the headline unemployment rate or the stock market index to determine future policy. Price to Earnings (P/E) expansion can see stocks rise even if earnings lag and play catch up. We have seen this in Europe and the US over last two years. In the Eurozone the reduction in Public Investment is proving to be a major drag on growth. If this were to continue, the Eurozone runs the risk of falling into a new lower trend growth rate. Last week, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi reiterated the ECB’s accommodative stance. Emerging Markets will be a bigger story in the second half of this year. The new government in India will push on the infrastructure and manufacturing front to build the capital stock, meet energy needs, and herald much needed supply side reforms.
Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” pledge in July 2012 came at a time of extreme market dislocation and it completely changed the market’s expectations. Last week, in another unprecedented move, the European Central Bank (ECB) cut the overnight deposit rate to below zero and announced a new round of liquidity inducing measures. The ECB has a tough job to change expectations for future growth and inflation and this is where the challenge lies. For now, Draghi has done enough to buy time and keep deflationists at bay without announcing an overt Quantitative Easing (QE) program. In the US, house prices have risen, the Standard & Poor’s (SPX) 500 index has tripled from its 2009 lows and the US has recouped all of the 8.7 million jobs it lost during the last recession. Yet, the GDP growth rate is not back to its pre-crisis level. The rally in equities is not over, but we are seeing early signs that the US corporate profit margin cycle has begun to turn down. Separately, it’s almost time for the Football World Cup and I pick Argentina to win.
The first estimate of Q1 US GDP came in at a paltry +0.1%, a full 1% below expectations. Despite this disappointment, other data in the US have been very encouraging – consumer spending has climbed higher, core capital goods orders have improved, and the manufacturing index indicated a pickup in production. The April US Jobs report released last Friday showed the largest outperformance relative to expectations since November 2013 and an unemployment rate at 6.3%, is at its lowest level since September 2008. M&A activity is clearly accelerating and is providing equity markets a much-needed tailwind. US multinational companies have accumulated $1.95 trillion outside the US and repatriating that cash to the US incurs a tax penalty of 35%. It is therefore an incentive for companies to spend money on overseas acquisitions, even at a bid premium, and gain control of a competitor rather than take a tax hit and get nothing in return. It is May and “Sell in May” headlines are back. This May I wouldn’t despair. Keep your longs, as I see very limited downside.
Of all the world’s central banks, the outlook of the US Federal Reserve is the most clear: Tapering of bond purchases will continue at the rate of USD10 billion per meeting, with rate hikes expected to start by the middle of next year. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) approach is bi-polar – acknowledging the deflation risk in the Eurozone on the one hand but lacking the urgency of implementing a policy to avert it on the other. The Bank of Japan (BOJ) is still only halfway to achieving its +2% inflation target whilst the Bank of England (BoE) is debating the timing of the first rate hike (likely later this year). The S&P 500 (SPX) and particularly Tech and Biotech stocks have suffered recently. Back in 2011, stocks sold off because there was widespread concern of the US economy tipping back into recession. There is no such fear this time. Today, US GDP is growing at +2.5%, the US Jobs picture is getting better and the unemployment rate is trending lower. Therefore, it is important to keep it all in perspective and not get overly bearish. This week, India went to the polls in what may turn out to be a historic upset for the country’s long-ruling Congress party. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the ruling Congress party have created a bubbling pot of discontent. India needs a leader that can reform government institutions and it may get such a reformer in Mr Narendra Modi on May 16. A good showing by Indian assets will be a big boost to emerging market sentiment as a whole.
Crimea, the Peninsula on the Black Sea, has held a pivotal place in world history for over 150 years. After a relative peace of 24 years since the end of the Cold war, Crimea is back in focus as Putin looks to annexe it to Russia. The referendum in Crimea is scheduled for this Sunday and will be closely watched. All equity markets will get impacted from an escalation of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and we saw a preview of this earlier this month when the DAX in Germany fell over -3% in one day. On March 9, 2009 the S&P 500 Index (SPX) touched the lows of 666. Five years hence, the SPX is up +177% from these 2009 levels. The SPX Bull has run a good race. The only time the Bear came close to getting the Bull by its horns was in July 2011 when the SPX fell -18% over a two months period, as Europe teetered on the brink of a sovereign debt crisis. The S&P Bull at 5 is not old yet and far from running out of breath. When one talks of the corporate balance sheets now, one refers to the “cash” on it and not the “debt/leverage” ratio. Since the beginning of 2009 only $132 billion has flowed into global equity funds, while $1.2 trillion has flowed into global bond funds. The reallocation from bonds to equities is far from over. The recent February US Jobs report indicated the US economy added 175,000 jobs. The data also indicated that the number of workers in February, who had a job but didn’t work due to bad weather, was 601,000 compared to a ten-year average of 357,000. The number of workers who had reduced hours, due to weather, was 6.9 million compared to the ten-year average of 1.5 million. This is the highest reading for any February on record. It will not go amiss to say, if not for the poor weather, the job growth would have been even stronger in the US. The equity bull therefore has more legs, as the weather effect recedes.
In January, the US Manufacturing Index suffered its steepest decline in two decades, dropping to its lowest level in eight months. There is no denying that the weather had a role to play in the bad data, but it is difficult to conclude that weather alone is the sole guilty party and the February data is keenly awaited. Nevertheless, a good showing in the US Jobs report this Friday is key to keeping the equity markets supported. The equity sell-off in Emerging Markets (EM) is being exacerbated by the inability of central banks to halt the decline of their currencies, despite the bold hikes in overnight interest rates and currency interventions. I have repeatedly advised to stay away from EM equities and to stay short EM currencies vs. USD, and I continue to do so. In my last newsletter I wrote “keep calm and carry on.” I reiterate this view and assure you it has not changed to “freak out and panic now.” It is advisable to look for stocks and indices that now have good upside potential in view of the sell-off. Monetary policy in the US, Europe and Japan is still on track to encourage economic expansion and growth expectations for the Developed Markets (DM) remain sound. The European Central Bank (ECB) might be right in thinking that deflation is not a threat, but at low levels of inflation the bigger risk is one of measurement error. At normal levels of inflation, overestimation of inflation may be less of a problem. At low levels of inflation however, overestimation might mean that the zone is in deflation without anyone realizing it. Later today, the ECB could cut policy rates again and/or strengthen their “forward guidance” timeline. In any case, falling inflation has to get the ECB to act with more urgency which could weaken the Euro. A weaker Euro could add some buffer back into forward inflation expectations.
Last year saw improved economic activity and reduced monetary and fiscal risks. 2014 promises more of the same. There is no denying that the US Fed’s easy money policy has helped greatly, but there have been real improvements in the US economy too. I believe that the Fed starting to pull away (albeit cautiously) will be viewed by the market as another step towards returning to normalcy. In 2014, around 40 countries go to the polls, representing 42% of the world’s population and more than half of its GDP. The political landscape particularly in the Emerging Markets (EM) could be very different by the end of the year. Incoming Fed Chair Janet Yellen has been an ardent proponent of an easy money policy to address the cyclical shortfalls of the labour market. The Fed under her stewardship, is likely to play down the 6.5% unemployment threshold and may even go a step further and reduce it to 6% or lower in Q1 of this year. Therefore, equities will have support throughout the year. In 2013, three-fourths of the S&P500 (SPX) return came from Price-to-Earnings multiple expansion, rather than higher earnings. This year, another +29% gain on the SPX is very unlikely. The healing process in Europe is underway, and more remedial action is expected this year. The European recovery theme, which investors endorsed in 2013, will remain alive in 2014 too. Perhaps 2014 is finally the year of positive Earnings-per-Share (EPS) in Europe. Japanese equities are a buy, but be prepared for volatility in March/April, around the time of the increased consumption tax coming into effect.
The twinkling lights on the streets and cold morning air tell us it’s almost time for Christmas. It is time to bid a year farewell and welcome another one. As for the markets this year, the global economy has returned to trend-like growth, following a very weak start. Less fiscal tightening both in Europe and the US have played a major role in this economic recovery. This year, there was no US fiscal crisis; no hard landing in China; and the European Union managed to keep both the Euro and Eurozone intact. As a result, equities soared, gold collapsed and the bond market bull was dragged back and tethered. If the S&P ends near 1800 and the 10 year US treasury yield ends at 3%, equities will have outperformed bonds by +40% in total return terms – the highest ever. The year 2014 will be a year for cautious optimism. I am optimistic about the US but cautious about Europe. US equities continue to be a good long trade and Japanese equities are also a buy. Emerging Market (EM) equities had a great Q4 as a tactical long, however, I am wary to be long EM equities beyond January when ‘tapering’ talk will likely gain momentum. USD will strengthen more against EM currencies than the developed currencies.
Despite a few “tricks”- tapering, an Emerging Market sell-off, and a US government shutdown, 2013 has largely been a “treat” for risk-taking investors. Inflows into equity mutual funds/ETFs in October were the third-largest on record. On the other hand, Bond funds have posted five consecutive monthly outflows, for the first time since 2003. You will recall my year-end target on the S&P 500 (SPX) is 1744 and this was obliterated two weeks ago amid the euphoria of a deal in the US Congress to avert a US default and an end of the US government shutdown. I am not tempted to raise my year-end target as I see very little upside from here. I would recommend you lock in your profits and look for more incomeyielding strategies until the end of the year. I am however by no means bearish, and have a very constructive outlook for 2014. US inflation continues to come in on the soft side. Europe encountered its own scare of deflation with new data showing inflation well below the European Central Bank (ECB) target. The most anticipated political event of the year – the third plenum of China’s ruling Communist party is set to take place this weekend. Recall, it was at the third plenum in 1978 that Deng Xiaoping announced the opening up of the Chinese economy: The move that triggered three decades of phenomenal growth.
The September US Central Bank’s “tapering” decision took almost everyone by surprise. The S&P 500 index rallied to a new high of 1730 however, since then, with the help from the US Congress, US equities have rediscovered gravity and pulled back. It is also evident that the Fed will err on the side of caution and would like to see signs of inflation picking up before dialling down monetary policy. Over the past month, several key hazards seem to have been resolved. The US Fed has kept its monetary policy supportive, current Fed Vice-Chairman Janet Yellen is back as the favourite to replace Bernanke, elections in Germany have passed and returned a more pro-Euro mandate and a potential US/Syrian conflict seems to be heading towards a global diplomatic solution. There was a time not so long ago, when the world looked to the US for both political and economic leadership. Not anymore. The current malarkey in Washington is about nothing more than egos that must be protected and soothed. In leading to the US government shutdown, neither side budged an inch in the negotiations and both sides eventually embraced a shutdown. It may be a “zero-sum” game for the politicians, but if played for too long, it could have negative implications for the economy. European equities continue to outperform and Italy’s political situation is looking more upbeat. I still recommend being long Europe, Japan and US equities. Any dip in equities caused by the US debt-ceiling stalemate, should be seen as a buying opportunity. I do not see the S&P 500 Index going below 1600. I remain positive that at the end of the year, the S&P 500 index will hit my target of 1744.
The nervousness in the market is not about overvaluation or excess flow into equities. Valuations are not expensive and the flow is on the side of equities. The real concern is regarding the uncertainty and the magnitude of the US Central Bank’s tapering announcement (expected later this month) and what diminished Central Bank support will do to asset prices. Will it lead to another big bond sell-off, sending interest rates spiking? This has the ability to disrupt the equity market and send the S&P 500 Index (SPX) towards the 1500 level. I expect the US jobs report this Friday to beat market expectations and the Fed to embark on a moderate $20 billion of tapering. Therefore, we will see the SPX reach 1600 post the tapering announcement, and perhaps lower if the Syria conflict gets messy. In my view, a bond sell-off coupled with the SPX hitting 1500 seems extremely unlikely. The Eurozone is out of recession and data out this week indicate a return to economic growth that is broad-based and not just Germanyspecific. China has not entered a slowdown as was anticipated. The problem in Emerging Markets (EM) could get worse, but a re-run of 1997 is unlikely given changed domestic structures – no USD currency pegs, more local currency debt and high FX reserves.
2013 has been a buoyant year for US equities and aside from a few sputters, the rally continues. The big question is do we see a sizzle, a snooze or even a meltdown from here on out? A sizzle -and a quick move higher- is unlikely, a snooze is more likely before we resume the upward climb to the 1744 level on the S&P 500 by year end. A big market correction or meltdown very often is a result of an unexpected event appearing on the horizon. Perhaps this risk will be limited going forward precisely because such events – a slowdown in China or tapering in the US are already known. I am still positive on US equities, however I am more comfortable shifting the allocation from overweight US equities to a more balanced US-European equities mix. Over the next two quarters, European equities offer a better return than US equities. Emerging Market (EM) equities have stopped declining as more long-term money finds its way back to these countries. Japan is a structural long trade, if you can stomach the volatility.
Since its peak in May, the S&P 500 has run into a number of headwinds: Doubts about Abenomics in Japan, tapering in the US, a self-inflicted credit crunch in China, capital flight in the Emerging Markets, a government overthrow in Egypt, and so on. However, we haven’t seen any panicked sell-offs. The stock market is placing each issue in context. This is a good thing. Slowly but surely, different sectors and aspects of the economy are returning to more normalized pre-Lehman levels. The US is on an upswing. As the Emerging Markets have recovered and then cratered, the US market has recovered and then recovered more. The US stock market, the US economy, and the US Dollar are all at the top, relative to their peers in Europe, Japan and the Emerging Markets. However, September 18 is still on track to be the day the US Federal Reserve makes its ‘tapering’ announcement. Should we be afraid of tapering? Of course not. European stocks have not done as well as their US counterparts this year. For H1, the US was up +12.63%, compared to flat or negative performances for the UK, Germany and France. I strongly believe that this quarter could be different. European companies are taking advantage of low borrowing costs and given the “kitchen sink” work must be over by now, it is time for earnings in Europe to start bearing the fruit of the repair work of the last few quarters. I expect European company earnings to surprise to the upside and therefore I would be overweight Europe v/s US this earnings season.
The two big macro themes that have concerned the markets recently haven’t changed – the Fed’s Tapering and Abenomics. US Treasuries saw a 50bps rise in yields during May yet the SPX had a positive month. The Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke must certainly be pleased so far by the market reaction to the talk of tapering. What we saw in the markets in May was “volatility” and not “weakness”. Selling in May, didn’t pay. In my May newsletter, I suggested – don’t be a grizzly bear (sell the equities and go short the market) but be a teddy bear (stay invested and buy some out-of-the-money Puts). I still have the same advice for the month of June. The deterioration in German retail sales and the rise in the number of unemployed in Germany have focused the minds that the malaise in Europe could be heading to the core and there is expectation of further European Central Bank (ECB) actions. Rising home prices, declining initial jobless claims and better job creation numbers are boosting US consumer confidence. This bodes well for the US equity markets. Despite the recent correction, the medium to long-term case of Yen weakness and Nikkei strength remains. I would advise against investing in commodities at this time, unless the macro picture for China and the global economy gets clearer. Gold bears will continue to win and so will Copper bears.
We saw broad-based weakness in the momentum of US economic indicators during the month of April. The housing data was the lone bright spot. The US Federal Reserve left its asset purchase and interest rate policies unchanged. Yet, officials did alter their statement to say that they are prepared to increase or reduce the pace of asset purchases as conditions warrant. This has helped the equity markets rally even as the macro data has been showing signs of weakness. The European Central Banks (ECB) signaled its intent to tackle the problem of lacklustre lending to small business. If the European Investment Bank (EIB) steps in to provide credit guarantees, securitize these loans and transform them into high quality assets that the ECB would readily accept as collateral, it could be a game changer in Europe and positive for European equities. I still prefer US and Japanese equities though and would look to buy some protection on the S&P 500. My FX views are Short EUR/USD, Short GBP/USD and Long USD/JPY.
With every passing day, the Eurozone resembles the legendary Potemkin village – a fake construct that hides behind its facade a potentially damaging situation. Every time there is a crisis, the Eurocrats in Brussels have a new “construct” to calm the markets, but the picture behind the scenes is getting worse. If the original Potemkin village was a small settlement, the Eurozone is a Potemkin village on a Jurassic scale. Nothing will ever change the reality in the Eurozone – the individual countries have very different underlying productivity rates, as well as social and political systems and therefore a fixed exchange rate (the Euro) cannot bind them together without straitjacketing and destroying some of them (as is becoming evident now). Amid the Eurozone gloom, hope springs eternal for the US economy. February personal spending numbers, released last Friday, suggest the US economy grew at a clip over +3.5%. No doubt the “wealth effect” of increasing house prices is fuelling this rise in personal spending of US consumers. Despite my bullish views on the US economy, I expect things to slow down in Q2 as the impact of Sequestration grows and the debt ceiling debate is back in focus. The seasonal trend of a strong Q4 and Q1 followed by a weak Q2 could materialize yet again.
There was no “Silvio lining” in the Italian election “playbook” but it was not uneventful by any means and, if anything, the concerns have grown rather than receded.
It’s Back to the Future for the markets. Last week, both the Dow and the S&P traded at five year highs with the Indices hitting 14,000 and 1500 respectively. Every time the US market trades at a multiyear high, fears of a pullback descend. Keep in mind however that back in 2007, the US unemployment rate was 4.7%, the 10 year US Treasury yield was 4.68%; both indicators (as we now know) of an overheated economy at the top of the economic cycle. Today, the 10y US Treasury yields 1.98% and the unemployment rate is at 7.9%, both far from a cycle top. Downside risk also remains supported in the medium term by an extraordinary mix of central bank actions and fiscal policies we have seen thus far and they are set to continue. So what could go wrong? The lifeblood of this rally can be traced back to Europe and ECB President Mario Draghi’s actions and July 2012 speech, it is therefore imperative for Europe to resolve the upcoming macros issues favorably – the Italian elections, the future of Cyprus in the Eurozone, Spain’s budget, and the negotiation of Ireland’s existing bailout package. We may have to contend with a volatile February as US budget sequestration and Italian elections loom, but the risk remains to the upside.
The “fiscal cliff” deal does little to alleviate the uncertainty that remains about US fiscal policy this year and beyond; it is nonetheless positive for the US economy and the compromise made by both sides of the Congress is a significant first step. The political dogfight notwithstanding, investors should look beyond the headlines and not miss the wood for the trees. My base scenario is that there will be a long-term fiscal deal struck during the two year life of the 113th Congress that takes seat in Washington DC this month. In the US the manufacturing data is much stronger than forecast. Beyond the US, Europe is likely to stay stable not least because Germany has its elections in September this year; Italian elections in April look less of a destabilizing effect, the ECB’s OMT is in place and ready for use. Chinese growth is more robust than most expected. Despite the postponement of spending by consumers and corporate alike, it is also a fact that eventually the car breaks down and needs to be replaced, and so does the plant equipment. This is what drives the economic recovery. As the next round of jawboning in the US Congress starts and “debt ceiling” negotiations intensify, I expect the initial rally in equities to lose steam before the end of Q1 and endure a volatile Q2. My end of year target for the S&P 500 is 1554. A modest +7% upside from current levels but a +14-16% upside if you can pick the dip in Q1-Q2.
As US GDP growth inches to the +3% level, China’s official manufacturing index hits a 7-month high and a Greek exit from the Euro is off the table (for now), the outlook for equities has gotten better and is likely to keep improving. We will see more investors gradually leaving the safety of bonds and gold and moving into equities. The risk of not being in equities and missing out, is greater than holding equities and having temporary reverses. The case for US equities is still positive with a preference for cyclical sectors, however I am more positive on Emerging Market (EM) and European equities due to a higher upside potential. I forecast the S&P to finish 2013 at 1554, i.e. a +10% upside from Friday’s close of 1416. Come Q1 2013, I forecast that Spain will ask for a bailout, that the ECB will activate the (Outright Monetary Transaction) OMT and will buy Spanish bonds aggressively and that Spanish 3 year bond yields will narrow from the current 3.4% to under 2%. A “risk on” accompanied with additional US monetary easing means Gold will see a slow grind up. Energy prices will continue to drop as US shale gas becomes a hot topic of discussion. Look out for overheating in the investment grade bond market by mid-year and mark your exit.
It’s not just the US that may have a new leader, the world’s second largest economy, China, will most certainly have a new leader as the political cycle in the two economies coincides next week. While the market has been focused on Europe all of this year, what happens in the US and China post-elections, will dominate the agenda over the coming months. Policy gridlock in US and a policy vacuum in China will likely give way to new announcements and new actions in both countries. Despite the macro risks overhang this year, Equities have done well and the rally has come to be known “the most hated rally.” The reason for the rally is simple – liquidity trumps. The recent decline that we have seen in the S&P 500 came when the vast majority of economic data were all better than expected. Fiscal policy uncertainty is likely to keep things volatile but I have little doubt that the “fiscal cliff” will be averted regardless of who is in the White House come January 2013. The fears of a hard landing in China have proven unfounded, economic indicators suggest China’s economic plans are on track and the “stimulus” powder is still dry, if it needs using. Any EUR rally is likely to get capped at the 1.35 level. Gold is a long term buy; however trading 10% rallies and sell-offs could still bring returns from an asset which moves higher in spurts and could be range bound for months.
October is traditionally a scary month for equities. One-fourth of all equity crashes (including the big ones in 1929 and 1987) have happened in October. Last month, Federal Reserve bank Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered QEternity (open ended Quantitative easing of $40bn bond purchases per month) and now we are faced with a ‘fiscal cliff’. If the history of this Congress is any guidance, bickering aside, at the eleventh hour, the ‘fiscal cliff’ will be averted. US Manufacturing data released this Monday by the ISM (Institute of Supply Management) bucked the trend by rising to 51.5 from 49.6 previously. This snaps a string of three consecutive sub-50 readings. The details behind the headline were also better than expected, as new orders and employment both rose. I maintain my positive view on equities over bonds. The weakness we have seen towards the end of September will be bought back and most certainly in the rally that will ensue when Spain asks for a bailout and the OMT is activated. Recently, when President Obama was asked about his biggest mistake, he said it was ‘messaging’, not, ‘policy’. If policy prescription is right, big economic declines are followed by a big economic recovery. The recovery that followed during January 1983 – December 1985 resulted in a cumulative GDP growth of +18.95%; this time around, in the period from July 2009 – June 2012 cumulative GDP growth was a subdued +6.75%.
Bernanke’s Jackson Hole Speech may have threaded the QE3 needle but it may be premature to conclude QE will be announced at the September FOMC meeting. In reality the Fed doesn’t have to actually do a QE to keep asset prices from falling. The fear of any Fed action will be enough to keep the bears at bay. Only a worsening US Jobs report (less than 100k print) will make QE3 a sure bet. The macro data in Europe is not improving – manufacturing is down, unemployment is up, consumer confidence is down and the economy is still contracting. The ECB’s bond buying plan is welcome but you can’t wax a car and hope it fixes the engine. Europe needs structural changes. If the Euro is not to resemble a dead autumnal leaf floating on a pond, Europe and particularly Germany will have to agree “sharing is indeed caring” when it comes to normalizing the sovereign bond yields prevalent in the market today. At Thursday’s ECB meeting – I expect 0.25% rate cut (a non-event rally), no clarification on the issue of “seniority” of bonds ECB purchases and a likely commitment to unlimited bond buying in the 2-3 year duration. The ECB will also assure the market that there is no challenge to such a policy and that this action does not contravene its mandate.
Mr Draghi’s comments of ‘whatever it takes’ indicate Europe is finally ready to move beyond the preamble of solving the Eurozone crisis. This afternoon’s ECB rate meeting is eagerly awaited. My gut feeling is the deposit rate could be lowered to negative territory and the sovereign bond purchases restarted alongside more verbal assurances of strong action. Spain is on precipice. As late as early July, the Spanish government was telling everyone, “Spain doesn’t need a sovereign bailout”. It is now almost certain they can’t do without one. Spanish debt cost is spiraling at the short end too. With the country’s ratings under review, a downgrade now could cut Spain’s access to the bond market altogether. For me, this is the inflexion point in the Euro crisis and could be the reason for the recent bold comments from the ECB. The US Fed’s QE3 is likely to come at its September meeting. US Q2 earnings have not been bad but revenue expectations have lagged. However, the fall in consumption and income have bottomed and real spending is turning into a shallow uptrend. US Q2 GDP growth of 1.5% though small, keeps recession at bay. Slow growth with incredibly loose monetary policy bodes well for Equities. Large-cap US stocks are still the place to be, in the Industrial and Energy sectors in particular. Euro weakness will stay and GBP’s rehabilitation continues, at least until the UK gets downgraded..
The last EU summit was a change from the cul-de-sac policy responses we have had so far. Hopes of an exit to a US TARP-like solution to the European banking crisis were raised but details remain sketchy. The concessions that Ms. Merkel has made are unlikely to be a perpetual shakedown for Germany’s cash at every forthcoming summit meeting. Eventually she is likely to pull a Miss Havisham on peripheral Europe’s Great Expectations. There have been reports that Ms. Merkel does not expect the concept of Eurobonds to see the light of day during her lifetime. Perhaps then, the Euro is dead, but for the burying. One reason the crisis is dragging on is that there is no incentive (or penalty for that matter) for Germany to resolve the debt crisis quickly. The Euro helps Germany, so it will keep it as long as possible. The sub 50 reading of June US ISM manufacturing number is the clearest sign yet that the slowdown from weak economic activity in Europe is now hitting the US too. The Q2 earnings season is expected to be a weak one. I have a feeling it could be a tough July, like the one we had last summer. It is likely the US FOMC meeting on August 1 could be the point Equities find favor again. If I were on holiday now, I would not hurry back..
The Facebook IPO has come and gone and it has made Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire – many times over – and a Sucker-berg out of all retail investors who rushed in. Hype is not value. My fair value for a Facebook share is $20; however, I would wait to hear more about the company’s revenue growth plan before buying the stock even if it gets to this level. Greece has proven the point made by Margaret Thatcher about Socialism: eventually you run out of other people’s money. Germany is faced with two impossible outcomes – they take losses on the debt extended so far and suffer from, a rising Deutsche Mark (if the Euro then breaks up), or they tolerate high inflation and bear yet more fiscal transfer, if the Euro carries on as it is. Since it is difficult to work out the cost and benefit of each option just yet; the evidence so far suggests that Germany may be willing to give political integration in Europe a shot. The recent pullback in equity markets globally was primarily driven by the May 6 Greek elections, and fear of a Greece exit (or Grexit). I do not believe either a Greek exit or a Spanish bankruptcy is on the horizon. I am more inclined to believe that further ECB easing and European bank recapitalisation on the scale of the US (think TARP 2008), are the next actions in Europe
An amiable apparatchik by the name of François Hollande has one foot in the door of the Elysée Palace and European policymakers, having flirted with austerity and gotten GDP growth numbers with a negative sign in front, now seem to have rediscovered a liking for growth. In the US, the economic data so far is still pointing to more upside in US equities and the strong manufacturing data out this week reiterated the growing strength of the US economy. Therefore I wouldn’t follow the adage of ‘sell in May and go away’. In fact, this year, I would definitely stick around. I believe that the ECB will play a larger role sooner than later and therefore I am turning more positive on European stocks. The ECB is the only reliable fire brigade Europe has and not using it to fight the fire of the sovereign debt crisis is madness. I maintain my bullish view on Gold. Gold is not just a weak US dollar play, but a play against paper currencies of any color.
The two doses of LTRO that Europe got were just the vitamin and not meant to be penicillin. The growth prospect in Southern Europe looks dire and austerity targets ambitious. The first quarter rally in the S&P 500 has been the best in over a decade but will the market continue to bloom this spring? The US Jobs report out on Good Friday and the Q2 earnings season starting 10th April will provide us with the answer. I am cautiously optimistic for Q2 earnings and therefore think the market could rally all of April. Two factors have been key influences – good macro data from the US and a reward (albeit delayed) for last year’s US corporate earnings. It is attractive to be a contrarian but one can only be a contrarian at the ends; in the middle, one is a trend follower. We still seem to be in a good data trend from one economy that still matters more than others – the US.
The second Greek bailout is not a gift. It is a one-pronged austerity drive with no provision for growth. If the Eurozone is to be kept intact, Peripheral Europe will need a plan on the lines of the “Marshall plan,” which engendered the highest rate of economic growth in European history, to carry out reform. The ECB’s two rounds of cheap funding, LTRO, have not eliminated the risk of systemic failure, they have merely taken it off the table. Let’s keep in mind that a trillion Euros of additional bank debt will make any systemic failure in the future even greater than the one we are faced with today. Whether the LTRO liquidity is used by banks to pocket the spread on the carry trade, or lend more to the real economy, will shape what direction the crisis takes next. While I feel encouraged by the improving macro conditions, particularly in the US, and the risk to the market remains more to the upside than the downside, elections in April and May in Europe could cause volatility. The historical strength of the Japanese Yen has hurt the Japanese Equities market in the past, but recent JPY weakness could be here to stay, with the Nikkei being the prime beneficiary.
The Q4 US GDP growth brought us not three cheers but two. The ECB’s 3-year financing facility has given risk assets wings and we have seen a spectacular rally over the last two months. The trend is your friend…until it bends. The test for this rally will be the end of the second ECB financing facility on February 29, with no provision for a third allocation penciled in. The Greek PSI (public sector involvement) deal has so far proven to be more elusive than the artist Banksy. For me, a political discord in Europe is the single biggest risk this year. I am cautious in the short-term and constructive in the medium term. If the new macro data fail to confirm the good numbers we have recently had (especially in the US), a pull back is possible. However with the Fed hinting of QE (Quantitative Easing) and the ECB more supportive in Europe; equity markets will continue to find a safety net for a rally to restart should there be a pullback.
Interest rates are not expected to rise until 2014 and Europe’s problems are not going to be solved quickly, therefore income generation is still the investment theme for the year. As recession takes hold in Europe, I expect Q1 to be challenging with pressure on the ECB and European authorities to act strongly. Recent Italian debt auctions may have completed successfully but a 7% yield remains a prohibitive cost. Ultimately, this will spark the urgency to implement the fiscal measures proposed at the last European summit. For 2012, I forecast a sovereign default within the Eurozone and a ratings downgrade for France but a narrow election victory for Sarkozy. The EURUSD will trade near 1.20, and Gold’s recent correction will prove overdone. Emerging Markets will recover in the second half of the year, US GDP growth will hit 3%, and Obama will get re-elected (much to my disappointment).
When economies fall apart, it isn’t just the guilty that get punished. Exports make up forty percent of Germany’s GDP, so they can ill-afford to go back to a strong deutsche mark. The talk of a Eurozone break up is overdone as the ECB will step in as lender of last resort and buy European debt. In keeping with ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’, Mrs. Merkel’s intransigent stance is to extract the best deal for Germany in a dangerous game of who blinks first. The bottom is not going to fall off the markets in 2012 and US equities are preferred over European equities. Swap lines from central banks will keep the credit crisis in check but high sovereign indebtedness means books have to be balanced; a recession in Europe will follow and our best hope is for it to be a shallow one. As more money is printed, Gold still looks good. China’s desire to shift to domestic demand-led growth will be a key decision impacting global markets. It will cut rates and it will cut reserve ratios too and this should engineer a soft landing in China.
Recessionary fears in Europe exist but the US and the Emerging Markets (EM) look much better placed as economic data over the last few weeks have surprised to the upside. Central Banks continue to be in a monetary easing mode with the rate cycle in EM turning, inflationary fears receding and rate cuts to support growth looking more likely. The EM bullish case remains strong as do the cases for high yield credit (to take advantage of the recent sell of), Russian Equities (for valuation reasons) and large cap European and US equities that have lagged the benchmark. We recommend no credit or equity exposure to European peripheral economies. The message is some dislocations take a long time before the final solution is reached, and as an investor, it pays to be nimble and tactical with a shortened horizon. Overall, the risk is more to the upside than to the downside.
The Bond market is still pricing in a recession ahead and when bonds and equities disagree, the bond market usually wins. The Fed dissenters and the Republican Congressmen kept the Bernanke Fed from expanding its balance sheet. ‘Operation twist’ may not be too much of a help. If conditions worsen; expect the Fed to carry out another round of QE. In the near term, Europe leveraging up the EFSF and a good start to Q3 earnings season has the potential to deliver a short term rally in equities, but it’s not one to participate in without insurance. Dollar strength has wiped some glitter from Gold, but the case for Gold remains solid.
In Ben we trust; further QE will likely push double dip fears into next year. Gold should continue to benefit from fears of sovereign debt defaults and currency degradation. The Euro will survive but expect the strong members to exit and to see its recent strength wane. In the current environment, income not capital growth should guide us. Buy stocks for income and pick high quality stocks over high yielding bonds.